Ajira: You’re listening to Doula Stories, a podcast where we use storytelling to encourage, inform, and love on doulas.
Keelia: Each episode we’ll hear a story about what happens in the birth room from the doula’s perspective. I’m Keelia, she/they…
Ajira: And I’m Ajira, she/they…
Keelia: And we’re so glad you could join us for today’s story.
Today we're hearing from Divya Kumar who’s a psychotherapist based in unceded Massachusett land in what is now known as Boston, Massachusetts. Divya, thank you so much for coming on today.
Divya: Oh, thank you so much for having me. It's so good to be here!
Ajira: Tell us about yourself! We'd love it if you could share your name, pronouns, where you're from and where your people are from, and what you're up to these days.
Divya: Okay, well my name is Divya Kumar, I use she/her pronouns, I live in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, which is a neighborhood of Boston. I was born in Connecticut. I identify as South Asian-American or Desi. I am a psychotherapist and I specialize in perinatal mental health trauma and anti-depression work, and before I became a therapist I was a postpartum doula and a lactation counselor and I ran new parent support groups in my neighborhood for years. And I have a public health background. I worked in sexual health, repro justice, anti-violence stuff. I have two children, they are 13 and 11 now, which is just so bizarre.
Divya: My older one is almost as tall as I am, you guys! After my daughter was born, after my second one was born, I left the job that I was at and I had somehow started to run new parents groups in my neighborhood. And I sort of fell into this transition into perinatal work. And you can kind of take the girl out of Public Health but you can't really take Public Health out of the girl and so I’d do this weird sort of thing where I was always trying to create community-based programs and integrate comprehensive perinatal support into existing systems of care. And I worked at my local community health center for years, and also ran new parents groups and sort of patched a whole bunch of things together and always wanted more clinical work. And one day I was, you know, doing this thing that I often do of being like, “Why didn’t I get the clinical degree when I first was out of college? I should have gotten the dual MSW-MPH,” and my husband was like, “Well, why don't you go back to school?” and I was like, “No! I'm going to be 40!” and he was like, “So… yeah? And?” So I went back to social work school a few years ago which was one of the best decisions I made, and now I get to do all of this stuff kind of mushed together, which is awesome.
Keelia: That is so cool.
Divya: So it’s not too late! For anybody!
Ajira: No it’s not, not ever.
Ajira: Before we get started I have one more question for you that’s more to get a sense of who you are as a caregiver, which it sounds like you are a community activist/caregiver which I think is fairly common in this strata of human beings. What is one of your favorite self-care practices that sustains you and your work?
Divya: That's a good question and I think about South Carolina. And I think those of us, many of us were raised with these cultural narratives that we always go to sacrifice ourselves and that any sort of attending to our needs is selfish.
Divya: So I think self-care is very radical and really important. And I love to exercise, it is something that is a big part of what I do nearly every day. And especially as somebody who, I grew humans in my body and I have a sort of interesting and complicated relationship with my body, but one of the times I feel really powerful and boss is what I'm working out and it's definitely something that sustains me. And my body is awesome and powerful.
Keelia: Mmm. Someone who grew humans in my body I'm going to self-identify that way.
Divya: I mean, fuck yeah, right? Pretty awesome.
Keelia: It’s what happened.
Divya: It is a thing that I did.
Ajira: Pretty badass
Divya: It is! We should celebrate that shit.
Ajira: I agree.
Keelia: Well where were you in that journey when your story starts?
Divya: So what I’m going to tell you about is around the time, the fall of 2016, the sort of leading up to that presidential election and the aftermath of it. And I think it's a good story to tell because here we are four years later in the aftermath of another presidential election that thankfully ended very differently. It's a story of kind of how I learned how I wanted to show up as a perinatal support person and what that meant in terms of reconciling my own identity and how my own identity showed up, and how I wanted to be there for other people and hold space for other people. And at the time I was running new parent support groups and I think I was in the process of applying for social work school. So the things I sort of want to set up are: there's this piece of where I was at the time, I think I was getting ready to, I think I had applied to school and I was waiting to hear back? And also I was sort of coming to the point in providing support for parents where I was thinking more and more about the clinical pieces. And I was coming to this idea that parenting is really really triggering.
Divya: And this is something that I've said many times. I did a podcast a couple years ago where it's like the subject line, like the teaser line was, “parenting is triggering af.”
Divya: It's something that I come back to again and again and again. The rawness, the newness, all of the vulnerability, this vertical learning curve, being responsible for this tiny new human, the sleeplessness, the relentlessness. It's like freaking Groundhog Day, right? And it is like, “Here we go! And again!” and just how that sort of relentlessness will jostle everybody's hornet's nest. And by that I mean, like, we all have the shit that we carry, the pain that we've experienced, trauma, stuff we struggled with, it is kind of a house that we live in. And for many of us we have figured out how to be here in our bodies and our brains in our lives and it's mostly okay. We figure out how to manage ourselves and make peace with the house that we live in. Like we all have the shit that we've been through and we're kind of like, “Okay, I'm a grown person,” and we're good. And we have a baby, and everything gets really fucking rattled, right?
Divya: And we lose a daily rhythm of sleeping and waking and eating and resting in these basic pieces of our coping get jostled and we can't have alone time, we don't have bodily autonomy, we may not have space and so it can get harder to cope and so stuff can get jostled.
Divya: And I set all this up because these are the people that we hold space for, right? This is all of us as parents and it's the people that we care for. And you can have, as you guys know, being a new parent will rattle the hell out of things and if you have, you know, you have issues with food, or an eating disorder, or you grew up with food insecurity, you have attachment stuff with your own parents as unresolved, sexual trauma, racial trauma, even if you feel like you have a hard time making friends, you feel sort of different, everything is just sort of rattled.
Divya: And you don't have access to coping mechanisms like you were used to cuz your time is not your own. You can't make the same choices that you're used to making, right? Like so if you're somebody who has had to, like, override your sensations of hunger either because you were food insecure, you have issues with food, you have disordered eating, your baby eats like eight to twelve times in 24 hours. So if you spent your whole life overriding sensations of hunger and now you have to tune into your baby's hunger cues all the time you're like, “What? I don’t know how to do this.”
Divya: So I give that as an example and everybody shows up to a new parents group, right? Like, everybody’s stuff is being sort of jostled in different ways. And people come to a group and they’re like, “My baby isn't napping,” and then we're like, “Okay, let's talk about the naps and the sleep.” And it was around this time that I was kind of like, “Okay, so there's all these other things that are happening here.” And it was starting to show up in different ways, I think.
And so I'll say, like, okay so in the fall of 2016 I’d been running groups for years. I love this work so much, I still can't believe that somebody paid me—paid me!—-to sit with new parents and listen to them.
Divya: And hold space for them and just, you know, sit in a circle and hear people's concerns and their questions In the time of rawness and newness and vulnerability and, you know, create this environment where people felt normal. They were able to connect and feel less alone. And it was literally, I, like, “You guys, I have the best job ever!” And sometimes these new parents would look at me and they’d be like, “You’re really enthusiastic,” and I was like, “This is so great!”
Ajira: I love that!
Keelia: Also, totally relate.
Divya: Right? And this is, like, sort of a digression. I have a lot of issues when people are like, “I don’t even want to get paid, it's an honor!” I'm like, “No no no!” We're good at our jobs, we’re experts.
Divya: We went to school, we got training, like you would not, you know, the dentist isn't saying like this is sacred work,” filling your cavities. Like this, I am also good at my job, we are good at our jobs, we’re experts.
Ajira: Where is it written for work doesn't require exchange so… no. Sacred and I still want to be paid, thank you.
Divya: It’s both-and, right? I love my job. And at this point, you know, I kind of mostly kept politics out of these groups. I think there was some exceptions, maybe around the time that the police who killed Eric Garner were not held accountable. I remember people were talking about going to Black Lives Matter protests. I believe this was in the fall of 2014? But politics had never dominated these conversations at moms groups and, new parents groups, rather, I should say. And a lot of this, I felt like it changed in the fall of 2016 when Trump was running for president. And the man was basically running, he was a sexual predator, he admitted to it. He was psyched about it, that was his thing, right?
Divya: He was just vile and frightening and that's what he ran on. And a lot of people were feeling activated. He was running on these platforms of xenophobia, islamophobia, just hatred on so many levels. and I think many people who had any sort of marginalized identity were feeling very vulnerable in a different way. In a way that was kind of bleeding everywhere and it wasn't… it was showing up everywhere, I think.
Keelia: And do you mind painting the picture for us of what one of these groups would look like for you? So you're providing postpartum support to multiple parents at the same time. Are these parents who just had a baby weeks ago? What are the demographics like? Really anything you can tell us about what you are expecting with this new cohort of parents.
Divya: That’s a really good question, Keelia. There was one that I ran with the drop-in group and it was mostly, that's sort of the one that was really well-attended. I would get, like, I think probably the minimum was around 12 but sometimes it would be more like 16 people. Like 10 was kind of low, it would be more like 16, 17 folks, so some good-sized groups. And it was for any parent of any gender baby 0-6 months. So sometimes you would get people who had like a little fresh loaf nugget, like 3 or 4 weeks old.
Divya: And then you would have people with babies, like, five, six months old. What was really cool about the group is that sometimes you would get parents who would be on parental leave for 12 weeks or so, and then sometimes their spouse would be on leave after that. So one parent would come with the baby and return to work outside the home, and then the other parent would come for the next couple months. It was really, it was lovely. Sometimes I would get to know two parents in a family. And there were a lot of people who came for a long time for, you know, two to four months. Some people came for almost the entirety of the six months if they could. So it was really a wonderful opportunity to get to know people, to get to know their babies. Like they would come, like, all swaddled and wrapped up and by the end some of them were, like, sitting independently and like starting to scoot around on their bottoms!
Divya: And, you know, smile and laugh! And it was just such an honor to sit there with them. And I really, I just can't, I can't say enough how lucky I was and how much I enjoyed it. And I really miss that work.
Ajira: I’m really, really reveling in not only the joy but the reverence. And, like, you're putting into words how I feel about it too. And it's really always exciting to hear someone else adore this in the same way.
Divya: There's so much to adore! And literally, I’d be like, sometimes I didn’t even have to do anything! Because what was so great about the group lasting for that kind of age range, you get people who would come when they were at five, six weeks postpartum and they were like, “What in the ever-loving f*** am I doing,” or, “What did I do? And how did…” you know, just like the fits of the, like, very colicky, fussy, like, you know, we had all those like big bouncy balls and they’d be, like, sitting on the balls the entire time, and the baby’s like, “Wah! Wah! Wah! Wah!”
Divya: And you’re like, “Okay…” and they’re like, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” and you’re like, “No no no, it’s fine! You’re fine.”
Keelia: Mmhmm, mmhmm.
Divya: And then, you know, a couple months later there’s new people coming in with these colicky screaming babies and by that point, you know, if somebody else is like 4 months postpartum and they're like, “Oh my gosh, I totally get it. When my baby was screaming I would sit on the ball, and I would do this.”
Divya: You would just see how that that sort of mutual aid happens very organically and it’s just fantastic. Because I don’t want to be there as the expert I'm like, “You guys, you tell each other how it is. I'm here to make sure I get the ball down for you,” because people’d be holding their babies and trying to get the balls off the racks that were, you know, they’re like holding the baby in one arm, and I was like, “Oh I’ll get it for you!”
Keelia: Aww. Yeah.
Keelia: So was there one particular group of parents you were thinking of sharing with us about?
Divya: Yes. So at this time I felt like there was this there was sort of a shift in how things were feeling. And I remember feeling like people were starting to talk about politics, and at one point I was like, “Yeah so parenting is really triggering, isn't it?” And everybody was like, “Euhhh.” You just felt this kind of sigh come out of people and I was like, “Oh. People are feeling a whole bunch of ways.” And the thing is so was I, right? And I remember as the election was sort of, all the stuff building up to it was building up, I starting looking around at this room and, Keelia, to your point a minute ago, you were asking about the demographics: so JP has gentrified very rapidly over the years. I moved here in 2005 and it was very different. And the demographics have changed. It’s become a lot more fancy, lots of luxury condos. You know, it used to be very different when I first moved here.
I think for a whole bunch of reasons the groups that I ran were mostly white. We did have some BIPOC folks, we definitely had queer folks because JP is a pretty queer friendly neighborhood. But it was a predominantly white space like every once in awhile I would get like a good percentage of BIPOC folks and I’d be like, “This is pretty cool,” but it was mostly a white space. It was one of those places were you kind of think that people are generally Progressive but you never really know?
Divya: And I'd had a few run-ins with, you know, white women’s racism in Jamaica Plain which is a whole other podcast for another time and I will save you that rant. But what I will say is I was looking around, I have often been a person who is one of those one or only one BIPOC folks in predominantly white spaces. I have a lot of racial trauma. I grew up brown in white suburban Connecticut and was basically othered and ostracized for a lot of my early life and that sort of morphed into desire for proximity to whiteness, and a lot of rejecting of my own ethnic background for the sake of safety, and that's a whole other podcast. But during this time it was like somebody turned the lights on and I was like, “Fuck. How did I get here? How did I get here, how did I let this happen that I am moving in predominantly white spaces? And this is how I have lived for so many years?” And suddenly my own sense of safety felt like a house of cards.
Divya: And all of a sudden I no longer wanted to be here in the same way. And I felt this unrest and this uneasiness and, you know, especially after Trump was elected, I would find myself in groups of white women and I would almost have to bite my tongue to not be like, “Was it you? Did you do this? Did you vote for him? Did you fuck this up?”
Divya: “And are you a reptile in disguise? Who are the wolves in sheep's clothing?” Right?
Keelia: Mmhmm. Mmhmm.
Divya: And I’m trying to hold space for people who are vulnerable at the same time.
Divya: And I’m like, “Goddammit, my shit’s being kicked,” right? And so I did have this group of new moms who I adored. And every once in a while in the process of running these groups I would get these cohorts of people, and I would be like, “This is wonderful! Can we all be friends?” And sometimes I did, like, cuz we all lived in the same neighborhood, I would see them at the playground and we're all, like, you know we follow each other on Instagram and whatever.
But there was a group of folks who were coming to this group at this time. They had different identities. Nearly all of them were not straight white folks. A couple were BIPOC, one was a single mom, there were a couple folks were queer couples. And every week around this time I began looking for them like when these women walked in the room I will be like, “Okay. Alright. You're here. Okay.”
Divya: It was really powerful. I knew that I needed allies, I needed support in a different way. And so it was slowly, slowly people started talking about politics. And I started bringing this in a gentle that intentional way. And usually I would start the group by being, like, “Okay we're going to go around in a circle, you can see your name, you can say your baby’s name, you can ask a question, you can talk about what’s coming up for you, you know, we can offer support and advice, let us know.” And then I started to add, you know, “Also if you don't want to talk about your baby, that's fine. If you want to talk about what's going on in the world that's okay.”
Divya: You don't have to talk about the naps and the bottles and the burps and whatever. We're here for that, and also if you want to bring in the larger context of how we're living that's fine.
Divya: And I also started saying things like, “If you want to talk about something and you don't want us to respond and you just want us to listen we can do that too.”
And then there was, I think, a space that got opened up in a different way. And people started to share in different ways. It was one of those things that was different, and it was profound, and a lot of these moms started talking about, like, what is it like to be a child of immigrants.
Divya: What is it like to be a non gestational parent in a queer relationship, and what is it going to be like when I have to adopt my daughter, now, because I don't know what's going to happen when this new administration takes power? How will that jeopardize my rights as a parent? What will happen to my family? And all of these vulnerabilities came in in a way that they just hadn't been present in that space before, or maybe they had been, but they were bubbling up. They were undeniable. Like everybody… nobody can kind of keep it from bleeding into the space.
Keelia: Mm. That’s a lot to hold at once, within yourself and while holding space for others. And as you felt it opening up in the group, what did you feel led to do to support them? Was it a lot of just, “That sounds really hard. Does anyone else want to share?” Or did it kind of have its own energy, and as soon as one person opened up the next person did and you just got to kind of watch and be grateful for everyone being there?
Divya: It was more of the latter. Cuz I really think, like, before the election there was more a sort of… I think that a lot of women, regardless of identity, kind of got freaked out about all the sexual predator stuff. And this is where I was kind of… it was interesting for me cuz I was kind of like, “Oh, you know, he’s been saying a lot of bad shit for a long time.” But when it becomes this, like, “Oh every woman can relate to having experienced some sort of sexual trauma”’ then I'm like, “So you weren't mad when he was talking about all the anti-muslim stuff but now you're mad?”
Divya: And also everybody was kind of joining on something. So there was layers of feelings that I had about that. And again, the thing that I'll come back to again and again is, like, if you’re providing any support for people, you got to check your own stuff. And you have to reflect on what’s going to come up for you in these spaces because while everybody else is triggered and activated, you will be too. Because that’s just kind of how our brains work sometimes.
Divya: But once people did start saying, like, you know, “I’m really worried about this,” and, “I'm really worried about that,” there were a bunch of people who kind of joined in and were more willing to say, you know, “This isn't just some abstract issue. This is how I walk through the world. This is how I parent. This has to do with a composition of my family.”
Divya: “I can't turn this off. This isn't just about politics.” It's actually hard for me to remember Cuz a lot of it came out and drips and drabs of the things that people were sharing, of like, “Oh my God, I can't believe that people are going to vote for him. What does this mean for me and my family? What does it mean for me as a parent? How will I raise a daughter? What does it mean to be the mother of a daughter?”
Divya: And it was really… these are women who felt this vulnerability. Who were kind of coming to terms with, “How am I going to be a parent now? How am I going to raise a small human now, when I feel like the world is unsafe and different? And I feel like I need to reconsider what it means to raise a small human and have this responsibility in an environment that feels toxic and turns my vulnerability up to volume twelve.
Keelia: Mm. It's just a very small glimpse into what so many Black and Indigenous families are thinking about as they’re pregnant. Or at least, I've noticed for myself every single Black family who I’ve supported through their pregnancy and birth, every single one has brought up some version of, “I'm having a boy and I'm really scared for his safety.”
Keelia: Or, “I'm just afraid of what it'll be like for my Black baby growing up in the US.” And sometimes it's in passing, like almost like a throwaway line of like, “Of course I'm going to have that stress for the rest of my life.” And I feel like the last two elections have brought a lot of that closer to home for a lot of parents who haven't had to think that way before. Like what you were saying before, yeah.
Divya: Right. Right. And I will note that none of these families that I'm talking about were Black. And that is a whole conversation about the lack of… there’s a real lack of integration in Jamaica Plain for sure. And I think Boston is very divided for a lot of reasons that are a whole other podcast topic.
And the other thing to own and part of that like, “reflect on your shit” is also to reflect on what pieces of privilege you have. You know, I'm a brown person, I am a non-Black person of color. I don't walk through the world, I don’t walk through this country in the same way that Black folks do. I'm a straight woman I have a good bit of financial privileged so these are things that I carry, right?
Divya: So for folks who are going to show up for other people, it's really important to think about What’s gonna get triggered and activated, but also what pieces of privilege do you have? And how are people going to look at you differently? And what have you not kind of come to terms with?
And I think for me it was really eye-opening because I couldn't… You know, here we learn about this a lot in Social Work School of like, “What is the use of self, and how do you bring yourself in?”
Keelia: That was exactly what I was about to ask you!
Divya: Haha, great minds.
Keelia: Like, how did you decide to show up in that space and prioritize supporting these parents when it was obviously so personal for you?
Divya: So I think it'll look different when you're running a new parent support group vs when you’re doing therapy, and also, I mean, I think the most important thing is to do it intentionally. And my thought to anybody who is providing support for anybody is to just ask yourself, “Why am I doing what I'm doing?”
Divya: To be intentional about what you share because sometimes we’re like, “Oh my God! And me too! And this thing!” And you're like, “Woah! I'm reacting from the activated place!” And if you are activated it's really important to know that and be like, “Woah, all my shit is bubbling up!” and to notice it and to be aware of it. And this is why I like a good mindfulness practice, you know, is every support person’s best friend.
Divya: To be aware and be like, “Oh the thing is happening” so that if you start opening your mouth and, like, “And I was really traumatized, and my thing, and blah blah blah,” and like you have this room full of parents were looking at you with their eyes open and you’re like, “Oh, woops.”
Ajira: “Did I say too much?”
Divya: “Something needed to be exorcized, but like oh I'm here to support you! And now everybody’s dysregulated. Shit! Who’s holding the bag?” No, ideally, sure that's going to happen sometimes, but it's just this is why I'm like you need to have good supervision, you need to have clinical training. Please check yourself before you show up for other people.
Ajira: Yeah, I think that's true in all the work with new families coming together, or even just having that milestone, transition kind-of moment. One of the questions I had coming up for me was, you know, you mentioned how your own stuff, your own hornet's nest can become rattled in the process of supporting someone through whatever milestone experience they’re going through. And I was wondering what are the strategies that you have in place to cope with the potential for that? I heard you say, “notice,” that's definitely a good first step, right? And then what?
Keelia: Can you solve all of our problems, please, right now?
Divya: Well… Are you sitting down one?
Ajira: One simple solution for $9.99.
Divya: I often say to clients and I will say to everybody here: my magic wand is broken, my crystal ball is also broken. When I get this shit fixed I will make a million dollars and I will move to Hawaii. Seriously though, I have so many people who are like, “Fix it! How do I fix it?” And I’m like, “Well… It is a process.”
So when you notice something is happening, you’re sort of aware that something's happening to you, and you sort of say, “Oh, okay. This activation is happening. My hornets nest is getting kicked. Like, this conversation is jostling all the stuff that I'm carrying.” And then it becomes something that's happening to you and you get this tiny little piece of separation from it?
Divya: And if you can get a little piece of separation from it it's much more easy to exercise a little bit of control and say, “Oh yeah, this thing is happening. Okay. I see you kicking up the hornet's nest and right now I'm going to just take a breath, and you're going to come sit next to me, oh Miss Activation Reaction, yes, you're here, I see you. You can be here, and you're not going to drive right now. Because I need to be here for all these people.”
Divya: In the moment when I feel like I am activated and I'm like, “Euh,” like all of a sudden something doesn't feel right, and I feel that tightness in my chest, or my heart is beating, or one of my old therapists called it “therapist stink,” like the specific way that you start to sweat. And you’re like, “Euh…”
Keelia: That’s great.
Divya: Oh but it’s, that shit is so real. It's really to be able to notice that it's happening. Notice that it’s happening. “This is a thing that's happening. I don't like it, and I know it's going to pass. I'm feeling a certain way.” To notice it’s happening and name it, know that it's okay. This whole, like, acceptance without judgment is huge.
Divya: “I'm feeling all this grossness. I don't like what this woman is saying. I am feeling that I think that she is maybe a little privileged and myopic. And I feel the sweat kind of pooling in ways that I don't like. This is all happening to me. It's distressing and it feels shity and gross, and I know it's going to pass. I'm not going to feel this way forever.”
Take your breaths. Notice that you're sitting on the floor. Notice what it feels like to put your feet into the ground. Put your shoulders back, see if you can touch your shoulder blades together. Do a belly breath and try to connect into your body in a way that feels okay.
I often tell people do not block out what's happening cuz if you block it and try to shove it down—whenever you bury anything you're going to bury it alive and that ain't good. So it's more sustainable, I would say, to sort of notice that it’s happening and let it happen and, you know, I always am like, “You can sit next to me,” like you can have the anxiety sit next to you. You can have the reactions. Notice if they're happening, notice that they're going to pass. Whatever intensity you feel, it's not a permanent thing. It's going to come, it's going to go, you're standing on the beach, the waves are going to wash over you. You know, you're going to feel them come over you and they're going to recede, right?
Keelia: I’m imagining those little characters in the Pixar movie “Inside Out”.
Keelia: Like, I notice my anger coming to the control room. I notice my fear. And I’m not going to let it drive. And it will pass.
Divya: That movie was created based on, I believe it was the internal family systems model of the different parts of ourselves. And there's a whole lovely rabbit hole that we can fall into about that. But it's the noticing what’s showing up. Like, “Oh this thing is showing up for me right now. Okay, I see you. You can sit here, you can be here. Because if I shove you into the closet, you’re gonna get mad. And the doors are going to fall open and all of the stuff is going to fall out.”
Divya: “So you can be here, I just need you to sit quietly.”
Divya: Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn't and sometimes I definitely open my mouth and like verbal diarrhea has come out.
Keelia: I can definitely relate to that. I’ve one hundred percent done the same thing before.
What about any moments when what's coming up for you isn't necessarily coming from your own activated place, but in a room where you're supporting multiple people at once, what if their needs for support are conflicting? And what if you happen to align more with one set of those needs? Does that make sense?
Divya: It does. And thankfully I don't think there was ever a disagreement about, like, Trump or politics. Like we never got into that, thankfully. What I will say though is that, like, I think that there were people who were in that room who were kind of like, “My baby isn't napping. Can we please talk about that?” And there were people who were like, “All I can think about is my own safety and my vulnerability.” And so I was kind of like… It was hard because I was like, “Can we please talk about the real things? Like, yeah yeah yeah, your baby’s not napping, fine!” And then I also had to be like, “Yes, this is both-and.” Like, her baby’s not napping! That’s a legit thing! Like she's tired, she’s exhausted, she’s fried. She came to this group to get support around this. And if she wants to talk about this that's okay.
And I had to sort of figure out how to hold space for everybody. And it was hard because I wanted to talk about politics. I wanted to talk about what it felt like to be brown in a predominantly white space and, you know, I wanted to take care of people who were vulnerable. Who felt scared, who had marginalized identities, who felt like they had something to really lose. And I had much less sympathy for, you know, cis, straight, white women who had financial means. And I definitely felt myself reacting to, like, fancy strollers, and, like, questions that felt a little bit more myopic or just not inclusive of the reality of politics. Like I found myself thinking, like, “How can you be thinking about this at a time like this?”
Divya: But what you know is what you know. And what your concerns are—they are what they are. And it's all valid. And there has to be space for all of it. And it was challenging, this is a time where I was like, “Okay, I'm having a reaction to your stroller. Yep, I see that and also you came here with needs that are valid cuz they're your needs, and I need to be able to show up for that.”
Keelia: Mm. You know what that reminds me of is just any time I've thought, “I know what the problem is. I know what you need right now.”
Keelia: And I think the most common time I feel that way is after I’ve provided birth support to someone—if we’re talking about birth support—and I see them for the first time postpartum after a birth that I viewed as traumatic for the parent, where I think what they went through was difficult. Maybe the doctor treated them some way that I thought was completely inappropriate or disrespectful, but they just want to talk about how wonderful the birth was. Or they don't want to talk about the birth at all! That's very common too, where I'm coming in with my pages of notes, and pictures, and I'm looking forward to hearing about what they thought of the birth, and they've just completely moved on to, “I pumped 2 ounces of milk. it's the most I've ever pumped, and it spilled. And I feel like my life is falling apart because of that,” you know?
Keelia: It's just, what they need is what they need, and we can't control that, and we shouldn't.
Divya: Right. Right, and I think, you know, over sort of the longer arc of working with people, you see that it'll come out when it's ready to come out. And one of the most powerful things you can do is to continue to be there and just show up and hold space for people in whatever way they need.
Divya: Trust that they'll talk about it when they want to talk about it. Where, you know, cracking the door just a tiny little bit, and being like, “You know, if you ever want to talk about this, we can talk about it. And if you don't, that's okay too.”
Divya: “I'm here for all of it.” And do this sort of, like, laying out a menu of options: “It doesn't have to be now, it doesn't have to be later, whenever, but just know that this is a thing that we can talk about if you want to.”
Ajira: I was just thinking about this group and wondering how, you know, what was your journey as this was happening? And what did you get out of it that you weren't expecting?
Divya: Oh that's such a good question. I got out of it that my identity matters. And that my identity is going to show up, and then I can't ignore it. I can't ignore my own stuff. I can't cuz it's going to show up. I can't just be a support group facilitator, I am a brown woman who experienced racial trauma throughout my early years and, you know, acted from a place of that trauma for so many years.
And, you know, the lights came on in 2016. And there are many people who might look at me and be like, “Hello, your ass is really naive. Where were you all those years? How could you be in so much denial?” And, I mean, think I had some sort of, like, glimmerings of like, “Yes, racism is, like, a major problem. And also I know how to manage it. And I can keep myself safe, and I know how to navigate this. I can be in white spaces and it's fine, I know how to do this, and it's okay.”
And then it started to feel like it's okay if it's not okay for me. And I can choose to say, “I mostly want to work with folks of color. I need to sort of step away from being in predominantly white spaces.” And that's alright, I can make that choice. And I actually, around that time, I ran a couple groups for parents of color, and also I think parents who were in families with kids of color, to just hold the space for people who were feeling a whole bunch of ways in response to Trump. And I had a couple people who were kind of like, “Oh you’re really going to do that? Is that weird? Like do you feel like that's kind of like not inclusive?” And I thought about that for a second, and I was like, “Yeah. Maybe it is. And that's just going to be okay.”
Divya: And I had never said that before. I had never sort of said that, and stood by it, and I was surprised at myself. And I had had, like, a run-in with racism in Jamaica Plain several years before that, and I was talking to a wonderful woman who is my husband's cousin's wife and she’s a Black woman, and I remember we were talking at Thanksgiving and I was this person who, you know, moderated the community-based listserv and dealt with a whole bunch of the trash fire of racism. And I was kind of like, “I really tried to be a helpful person and show up for people and be nice and offer advice and offer support and, you know, I got thrown out like garbage. And she said to me, she was like, you know,—she's very smart—and she was like, “You really pride yourself on someone who is kind and supportive and who people look to for help. And also if you're going to talk about things like race and class, you’re going to make people mad. And you might not be able to have it both ways. And at some point you may have to choose.
Divya: And I was like, “Really?” And that stuck with me. And that was a couple years before that. And in 2016 I was kind of like, “I'm not just a support group facilitator. I am a brown woman. This election affects me differently, and I can't just act like it doesn't.”
Divya: It's all going to show up. It's going to show up for me. And I think that that's especially, oh my god, if you go to social work school, wooo! You get to social work school and everyone’s like, “If you don’t have a therapist, get a therapist.” And I was like, “I’ve been in therapy before, I'm good.” No no! You're going to have to get a therapist. But it's good! Like, sometimes your stuff gets kicked up and it's a good exorcism. But you will want someone to, like, sit with you through it.
Divya: You know, when you're holding space for anybody, supporting anybody, your own stuff is going to come up. And sometimes not when you expect it. It can be intrusive, it can be disruptive. And it felt a little intrusive and disruptive, like, I definitely felt those body sensations of when someone would be like, “My baby and this bottle,” and I'd be like, “There's a fucking sexual predator who is running out of platform of hate and making America fucking great again, and we all know what that means, and you're talking about bottles? What are we doing here?” Then I was like, “Oh. Uh-oh.”
Ajira: I just, I love the visual of a parent group where everyone’s talking about these things and then the facilitator’s like, “This means nothing! The world is falling apart.”
Divya: And, like, the bottles are important! Like, look, if you have not managed your own stuff it's going to get in the way. And then you're not going to be able to answer the question or hold the space for the woman who has the question about bottles. Of course she has a question about bottles! Fine! That's okay! It has to be okay.
Keelia: Mm. That was the next question I was going to ask which is if you can remember any specific moment that really stood out to you in that space within yourself or between group members. Or I know you already mentioned a few times when you felt activated from bottles or the fancy stroller—I relate to that one a lot—or the fourth expensive baby wrap the parent ordered at 3 a.m. because they had spent the night using the other three baby wraps they had, but the baby doesn't like them, so the parents have the ability to throw money at the problem… that usually activates me too. Even though it makes sense! Even though it makes sense.
Divya: Listen, my son is 13 years old, and, like, when my nipples were shredded and nobody was sleeping and I was sitting on a donut, if somebody had told me that I needed a purple Corvette and my son would sleep and my body would not feel pain, I would have fucking bought three. Like, it’s fine, I would’ve been like, I don’t know, take my ovaries, I don’t want to do this anymore, just get me sleep! Make my nipples stop bleeding!”
Keelia: So true! That’s so true.
Divya: The thing that really, the instance that really stands out in my mind was when one woman who was a non-gestational parent for her daughter was talking about needing to adopt her. And she was one of the people who was like, “I just want to talk about this, and I just need everybody to listen,” and she was very tearful and, you know, she was saying, “I don't know what's going to happen to my family. I don't know what this will mean. And we were going to do this, but I have to do it sooner now. I'm going to go and adopt my daughter.” And her saying, “I need to go and adopt my daughter,” was… All of us were just silent and we listened. And I'm a straight-identified woman, I’m married to a man and, you know, I was feeling vulnerable in my own ways as a person of color. And to hear this woman share her fears and her vulnerability I felt was so powerful, and I also felt honored that she trusted me and she trusted the group with it.
Keelia: Mm. They sound amazing.
Divya: They are wonderful! And these are all the women who I reached out to to get permission, I was like, “Can I talk about this cohort?” and they were like, “Hey! Yes, you can! Send us a link to the podcast.”
Keelia: Aww. How wonderful. Have you been able to keep in touch with these families?
Divya: I have, for the most part. Social media is garbage, and also it's how we stay in contact with people. And it's lovely to see their babies grow. I saw one woman in the package store the other day—I’m from Connecticut, we call them package stores—in the liquor store, and it was one of those things where, maybe it was earlier in the summer, earlier in the fall, I was going to see a friend for it socially distant, you know, fire pit situation in someone's yard and I was like I'll go grab a bottle of wine and then the next thing I knew I didn't have a basket but I somehow it's holding like six bottles of wine and like one was tucked underneath my chin, one was tucked between my chin and my shoulder. She’s like, “Oh, Divya, is that you?” and I was like, “Oh, hi!” and she was like, “Are you okay?” and I was like, “I’m fine! I’m just wine-body Jenga.” But so I still see people around and, you know, their kids are older and they’re in preschool, it's crazy.
Keelia: Yeah how do you close a space that means so much to parents for so long? You said that you normally led these parenting groups for six months at a time?
Divya: Yeah it was a drop-in group so sometimes, you know, people would come and go.
Divya: And I also ran groups that were six week sessions that people would, you know, people would come for the entire 6 weeks. You would sign up and you would come, and those were sort of easier to close out. And every once in a while, people would bring food. Somebody brought mimosas once, to the last meeting of those groups.
Divya: But the drop-ins were a little bit different, people would kind of come and go so there wasn't so much, sort of, ceremony around it. Although sometimes people who would come for a long time would be like, “This is my last one. I'm really going to miss you guys. Thank you so much!” And I'm trying to rack my brain on how all of this ended, and I think it ended in the way that most of these cohorts end, is that people transition gradually: return to work outside the home, or their babies age out, or sometimes people move. So I don't think there was a sort of final closure goodbye situation But I do know that I stopped running these groups in early 2017 so this is one of the last big cohorts that I can remember. It might have been really the last cohort. And it was, it was so salient for me, too, being in that space with this group of women. And, you know, when I reached out to them to get their permission to share these stories, I introduced it with, “This was a really powerful time to me, and I remember all of you as part of it,” and they were like, “Yes, we feel the same way.” That was wonderful.
Keelia: Mm. Yeah that's just so beautiful. Well to close, I know you've already shared so many helpful words of wisdom with us, but is there anything else you'd like to share about providing postpartum support? Or just any kind of support, really.
Divya: So again, like, your own stuff is going to come up sometimes when you don't even expect it. We become parents in a context, and all of the trauma and all the stuff that we carry is going to be activated in the context of becoming parents, and also as we as perinatal support folks hold space for parents.
So I think that we have to ask ourselves: what do we need? What do we need if we're going to be able to hold space for other people? And at that time in 2016, I needed to feel safe. I needed to feel like I had allies, because I felt very vulnerable. And these parents needed me to hold space for them, and they needed to hold it in a way so that they could talk about what they needed to talk about. They needed to be able to talk about their fears and, you know, I needed to reflect on my own stuff as a brown woman and how it was going to be surfacing for me, and how I could really be there to support new parents. So that’s really what I leave folks with.
And there are a lot of people who are like, “Oh my God it's fine! Like, all my stuff is fine!” Like, that's fine. That's fine, that's great. And also just reflect on how it might get activated so that you know how to take care of yourself in those moments, so that you can be there for the people that you're trying to support. Because if you can't manage all the stuff that's coming up for you, it's going to be harder for you to co-regulate, which is the same way that we have to co-regulate for our kids, right?
Cuz parenting is really freakin’ triggering! And if your kids are acting out in certain ways, most of the time we are reacting to our kids from a place of our own unresolved stuff, right? And I’m not saying that being a perinatal support person is the same as parenting, but in that same way, if our own stuff gets triggered and activated and kicked, we have to figure out how to manage all of that so that we're not we acting from that place when we're working with families.
Ajira: I really appreciate you speaking to that because I think that one of the things that was coming up for me as you were sharing was just the thought of how it's easy to imagine that because, you know, you're dealing with parents and babies and everything about that is so, you know, loving and oxytocin-inducing, that doesn't mean, one, like you said that the context of your existence is not going to play a part. But it also doesn't mean that there isn't real labor involved in the holding space and in having all of those all of those lived experiences or facets of your lived experience colliding in particular ways, right?
Ajira: I mean there's a reason why that particular time was when all of these things were activated. You know, it's kind of like something like you were bringing together too, Keelia, that it's something that is always there for a lot of parents but maybe not talked about as explicitly. And then for a lot of other parents there was maybe a much stronger illusion that those things are removed.
Ajira: But they're not. They have, like, real life impact on all of us. And, you know, like you were saying, being a brown person holding space for people who are not brown, and holding the space for the suffering that they're experiencing and also, you know, living in the context of the the suffering that you're experiencing or the people who look like you are experiencing, it's not I don't think it's a bad thing that those things were activated and brought together and I don't think it's a bad thing when a caregiver is experiencing that activation I think the real issue comes or the choice comes with you know what are you going to do about it?
Ajira: Because if you don't do anything you could, you know, really harm yourself and others. But if you do do something about it, like, wow. What a gift, you know, you may find.
Divya: Yes. I could not agree with all of that more, and I appreciate how beautifully you synthesized all of that. And the image of all these things colliding is a particularly powerful one and that is often how it feels. It feels like you're in some sort of emotional pinball because everything is sort of bouncing off each other and colliding, right?
And I think that time was formative for me because I was kind of like, “All of these things have to be integrated, and the integration is critical to how I work. I don't think that we can talk about birth without talking about mental health, and we can't talk about mental health without talking about trauma and racism and all of these things. They all come together. And the people who know me know that I often beat this integration drum of like, “Why are we talking about birth in a silo?” I think this is why all of these things have to be looked at together, cuz they interact and they collide and you can't really pull them apart from each other because they are so intertwined. And so this process of becoming a parent really is the culmination of all these Integrations, right? It might elicit memories of trauma, it might activate vulnerabilities, it is the thing where you realize how all of these things are connected.
For example, I do a lot of work with perinatal mental health and particularly in this time with covid and also with the surfacing of Centuries of racial trauma over the past six months or so with the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, you have BIPOC women particularly Black women who are anxious and are showing signs of PTSD. And all of that makes sense right you can't just say like, “Oh, she has postpartum depression,” or “she has postpartum anxiety.” Like, oh, really?
Divya: Okay, yes, but it's not just the postpartum anxiety that we see in the DSM. It's all of these things put together.
Keelia: Mmhmm. Mmhmm. How fitting that you're the first postpartum support store that we’re featuring.
Keelia: You know, that it's not just your body, it's not just the birth, it's not just the bottles, it’s everything.
Divya: No and I'm always, the birth people hate me when I say this but I’m like, “Labor and delivery, it's important, birth is important, it’s all important, and also it is finite.”
Keelia: It’s true.
Divya: It is!
Ajira: Agreed. Agreed. I agree one-hundred percent with that. I think it's part of the dysfunction of the system. I don't think it's, like, a mistake or accident, or whatever. But the focus on the birth when the birth is, I’m always telling my clients, “The birth is just the door you walk through.”
Divya: Mm. Right?
Ajira: It's finite, like you said, but your parenting experience, that goes on for way longer, and being with that person for all that time, with the person that you are once you walk through that door. That's a very, very different thing that, you know, that requires … What does it require? Durability?
Ajira: It requires a willingness to deal with your own shit and other people’s shit?
Keelia: Community support. Like what Divya’s describing.
Divya: Community support, and places where you can process all of this.
Ajira: Yes, places where people can just hold you.
Divya: Yep. Because this stuff is gonna come up In ways that you hadn't thought about! Like maybe you have issues with your mom, or whatever, and you've been able to manage it. Then all the sudden you're holding your own baby you're like, “Ooh my God. Woah, all of the zombie hands of my buried feelings!”
Ajira: “All of the zombie hands of my buried feelings,” I love that!
Keelia: That’s great.
Divya: Because we are really, really good at burying feelings. And when you bury your feelings, you bury them alive.
Keelia: I’m gonna remember that one.
Divya: Listen, to this amazing trauma professor in social work school and she said this repeatedly and I say that all day long, and clients are like, “Damn!” And I’m like, “Listen, we cope in the ways we cope because it's what we know and it's what works. And we do it cuz it works. And then all of a sudden, maybe it doesn't work anymore and we’re like, “Uh-oh, got to learn new coping skills,” and inevitably this is when you have the baby, right?
Divya: But you’re used to sleeping, right? And maybe moving your body and maybe eating food with two hands, and not peeing your hands.
Ajira: My favorite joke for two years postpartum with every child so far is just thinking of people who are having, maybe, challenges or friction in their relationship and one of them says, “Let's have a baby. That’ll fix it!”
Divya: No. Then everything gon’ be on volume twelve.
Ajira: Oh my goodness, and I just want to be like, “Oh, baby. Uh-uh, wrong way.”
Divya: No please go to therapy.
Ajira: Go in the other direction.
Keelia: And speaking of therapy and mental health, Divya, did you have any other resources you wanted to recommend either to parents or to support people?
Divya: A lot of the work that I do is around perinatal mental health, and so the organization that I always want to tell people about is PSI, Postpartum Support International. Postpartum.net I believe is the website.
I will also do a shameless plug for the Perinatal Mental Health Alliance for People of Color which is a program within PSI, which is an organization that I helped co-found in early 2017, actually. And what we do is we are in the process of building capacity among perinatal mental health professionals to better meet the needs of individuals, families, and communities of color so that folks who are BIPOC who are looking for a BIPOC perinatal therapist, somebody with perinatal mental health training who identifies as BIPOC, we're holding to build that professional field by offering scholarships to PSI perinatal mental health trainings so that there's just more support people out there. We're really trying to diversify and build the field of perinatal mental health folks.
Keelia: That is so cool. And how can folks find that?
Diyva: It is on the internet, perhaps everybody’s heard of it. PMHAPOC.org. And in the spirit of giving at this time of year, most of the money that we raise goes to providing scholarships for BIPOC folks who are looking for specialized training in perinatal mental health, so that's where, if folks chose to donate to the Perinatal Mental Health Alliance for People of Color, that's where most of our money goes to.
Keelia: Beautiful. And how can folks connect with you personally?
Divya: I have, like, a personal insta account with, like, my babies and, like, the beach and, like, random baking projects. And my professional insta handle is bothbrownand_
Divya: Cuz we are both brown and many things.
Keelia: Mm yes. So true.
Ajira: Thank you.
If anything from today’s episode resonated with you, leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast listening app, and follow us on Facebook or Instagram @doulastories. If you’re a doula and you have a story to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keelia: This episode was produced by me, Keelia Alder, and our music is by Rick Bassett. Special thanks to Divya Kumar for sharing her story with us, and to the families Divya supported for allowing Divya to share her story. Thanks also to Cameron Sharpe, and to my cohost who’s as wise as a 180-year old, Ajira Darch.