This week I sat down at Lakes Coffee in Medford Lakes, NJ with my friend and birth worker sister Brandi Robertson to chat about birth work, her personal birth experiences and what has lead her to this point in her life. I met Brandi almost 2 years ago when she moved to New Jersey from Japan with the military. Brandi, then a ultrasound technician with the Air Force, was brought back to the states and looked me up on the internet. We instantly connected and became fast friends. She is an awesome wife and mother of two children, Priya,10 and Graeme, 5. We could chat forever about birth work, among other things, so I thought starting off my birth worker interviews with someone like Brandi would make it easy and fun. What made it even more fun, there was construction going on outside of the coffee shop that day and there was a lot of giggling as we were trying to be professional doing a professional interview. As we settled in and got used to the background sounds we started chatting about her journey to birth work.
Me: Hi Brandi, Would you like to introduce yourself?
Brandi Robertson: Hi, I'm Brandi Robertson, currently living in Medford, NJ. I have lived in quite a few different states and places. I have about 8 different jobs right now. (laughs)
Me: How long have you been a birth worker?
Brandi: I guess you could say I started in the military with sonography but that is not where it started overall. I started as a sonographer, about 6 years ago, I loved
scanning people who were pregnant and getting to scan the babies. I felt I always had that pull, that need to be a part of birth. When I was younger wanted to be a labor and delivery nurse. I knew I wanted to delivery the babies. As a stepping stone I wanted to be a doula after I figured out what one was. (laughs) Being in the military put a hanker on that because I wondered where I was going to do my training, how would I do births, how was this all going to work out? For a long time I think I made excuses why I didn't (become a doula). When we were in Japan I felt like I was in the perfect place. When I got there there was one doula on base. I felt like it was the perfect time for me to get my doula-ness going on. Then I was, where am I going to do my training? So I flew down from North Japan to Okinawa, Japan to train with the Japan Birth Resource Network. That was set up by Amanda Dodson, she is pretty freakin' amazing. She has a connection here in the states that flies out there and does doula trainings so I asked that that trainer come to do a training in North Japan, in Misawa, Japan and she did!
Me: Was that with DONA?
Brandi: Yes, that was with DONA. I went through DONA because I am already in the medical field and wanted an organization I felt was reputable, recognized, an organization that is lobbying for change. I liked that DONA has been doing it a long time, some doula trainings are so new. I know some people don't like that you have to re-certify but anything in the medical field you have to re-certify so to me, that makes it more legitimate. I know that's a concern for people with financial constraints but I feel like if you want to be recognized by doctors, nurses, hospitals you are going to have to have that.
Me: You said you always wanted to be in birth work, what was your earliest memory of wanting to be in birth work?
Brandi: I remember being about 5 and playing school. I always wanted to be the school nurse and take care of people. We would play in the basement of my best friend's house. That transitioned to, I don't even know when, I was just so interested in labor and delivery. My mom had absolutely no interest in it she got drugs when she had me. She always said she doesn't know where this fascination comes from.
I used to joke with a friend in high school because I said I wanted a homebirth and a waterbirth. We would joke about my baby swimming away. So even in high school I knew, to me homebirth was the way. I had already planned to go to school for nursing, to be a labor and delivery nurse. That's where the fascination started, what goes on behind those closed doors with those women having babies. I didn't have any concept of a doula at that time. I did a senior project in high school where you could skip school, essentially and go work somewhere and present a project at the end of it. I chose labor and delivery and I had a friend whose mom actually ran a labor and delivery department. I remember being there and the nurses, with one particular patient were like, "UGH! She has a doula with her!" I was like, a what? Everyone was up in arms about this woman and why does she have this doula with her? The nurses were like, annoyed because they though that the doula make it harder for them. That was my first introduction to a doula and I don't even think it really clicked at the time. It was sad that they just saw this person, the doula, making their job harder. They saw the doula as someone who was putting a barrier between them and what need to be done. I understand that in hospitals you have SOPs (standard operating procedures), where everyone is the same and we are just going to push you through. You've got to do this in this amount of time or we will do that. I didn't even like make that connection about becoming a doula and me having that memory of a doula until years and years later. Essentially I felt like I've always known, I have always had that birth pull. Its just been a really long ride to get there.
Me: Everything is a really long ride, isn't it?
Brandi: Yeah, it the journey, the journey is what matters.
Me: When do you think that pull started to steer you towards midwifery? Because currently that is your path, you are in school for nursing right now.
Brandi: Probably when I got pregnant with my daughter Priya (now 10 years old). I think the main pull was when I got pregnant but I had already knew what midwives were, I knew what homebirth and waterbirth since high school. In my head that was how it was going to go down.
I know that midwifery was in the back of my mind for sometime but it really came to the forefront when we were having Priya. It was hard because being in the military, we were stationed in North Carolina so a certified professional midwife (CPM) was not an option there (in 2008). In North Carolina at that time you had to have a CNM and a doctor backing them. There were some fights about that, I know there was some legislation about it later on. I knew I wanted a homebirth but in the military you can have a free hospital birth so convincing Jamie (Brandi's husband) was a little bit harder. Tricare, even though they cover homebirth they don't for active duty military. Which makes absolutely no sense to me.
Me: They (Tricare) don't cover homebirth for active duty military but they do for not active duty?
Brandi: If I had just been married to Jamie and not in the military myself I could have a homebirth covered.
Brandi: Yeah. So we paid out of pocket for our homebirth. At first met Nancy Harman, who was my midwife for Priya's birth, when I was about 4-6 weeks pregnant. She met with us and she was amazing, such a calm presence, shes just a beautiful person all around. I was sold but Jamie was like I think we should do it for free. I sat on it and stewed on it for a long time. It was probably when I was like 5-6 months pregnant and Jamie was deployed, at one of his phone calls home I told him, "I doing a homebirth. I am birthing this kid my way. I've always known I wanted this so, I love you but I am having a homebirth," and that was that. I called Nancy and I knew she only took so many clients a month but I said to her, I know in my heart this is what I want. She said that if I was really feeling pulled to homebirth I will take you on and she did. We had an amazing birth! It was so great!
Me: So midwifery was in the back of your mind, did seeing a midwife in action solidify it for you?
Brandi: Oh, yeah! It was like she was a god to me. Coming and being that calm presence and letting a mom know that what they are doing is perfectly normal, you're okay. Being a person in labor, I've read all the stories, I read the birth stories, I prepped myself as best I could. Everyone want to inflict their trauma on you when you are pregnant because everyone wants to tell you how horrid their pregnancy and labor was. In a society that has built birth upon fear that makes sense. Why would I want to hinder my body in any way? Why would I want to take drugs to make me feel funky or block my body from what its naturally supposed to do. Not that the hospital doesn't have its place, they are there for a reason.
I'm sure I could have been one of those women who went into the wild and just had their baby but I liked having somebody there who would see my look of terror in labor and just say, you're good, its all good. Her look said this is exactly how its supposed to go. I threw up during labor and she got excited and said, "good job!"
Me: Its nice to have that person who is not freaked out by your freaking out.
Brandi: Yeah, it just made it so much easier. If you can say that about birth. It made it better. I think being that person, like a super hero. She should put on a superhero costume. It was amazing how her presence made everything so easy. Even with Jamie, her presence made Jamie...if you ask him he will tell you that she was a rock star! He didn't know what to do and they guided him. Even after the birth they took care of us, they cleaned up, changed the sheets, made us breakfast. The first thing the doula said to Jamie after she (Priya) was born was, have you eaten? Let me cook you some eggs and bacon.
Me: It's such a different experience than a hospital birth. So much more personal.
Brandi: Yeah! It was so much more personal! It was so calm!
Me: So you are on the path to midwifery right now, what do you want to do? Do you want to do homebirth?
Brandi: I am going to do homebirth. I would like to offer homebirth to women. I don't know where we are going to end up (live) so that's always funny. You and I talked about, when I first moved here, how this area(southern New Jersey) would be really good for it. If we are here it would be great and if we are not...
Me: You are in the process of CNM (Certified Nurse Midwife) so you would also be able to work in a hospital?
Brandi: Yes, I had actually started the process for CPM (Certified Professional Midwife) which I signed up for and didn't have the time for. I started CPM classes through the Midwives College of Utah. I still really like everything that they are doing and are offering. I have debated CPM vs. CNM for years because the difference is CPM you do training just for midwifery. You get to go to all these births and you are learning to deal with resuscitating a newborn and to deal with all the issues that come up during labor and delivery. I'm sure they teach the Gaskin maneuver and all that stuff. CPMs just specialize in birth and I think that is amazing and that's where the training should be but I want to be, again with that recognition, having the sonography background and knowing that if the recognition isn't there. I don't want to walk into a hospital with a mother and have to pretend I'm her friend or doula. I would like to have the option (as a CNM). I would also, if I'm in a state that allows it, run an establishment and have CPMs practice with me and if something comes up be there for them.
With CPM vs. CNM it came down to recognition for me. I think the training for someone who wants to go into midwifery should just be like CPM. I don't care about the ICU or ER or geriatrics. I know that there are emergencies that pop up but I would like to learn the emergencies that have to do with birth than everything else. That part is frustrating. I feel it should almost be like an apprenticeship to be a CNM. One of the women whom I met when I was going to MCU (Midwives College of Utah) she said she wished there was a bridge program from CPM to CNM. She is a practicing CPM, no issues right now but she said that if she had to go back and do it all again she would go CNM, 100%. She is unsure of what to do when she transfers a mother.
Me: What do you think your births, with your own children, taught you to be a better birth worker?
Brandi: Priya's birth was just enlightening. If you could equate birth to meditation, it was eye opening, that enlightenment. This is what it should be like for everyone. Graeme's birth was a fucking train wreck! And traumatizing. Even now I can feel my heart start racing thinking about it.
Graeme's birth was in a hospital birth, we were in Nebraska at that point. We moved to Nebraska while I was 4-5 months pregnant from Colorado. Colorado is so homebirth friendly and there are so many midwives. There was a midwife that I had been working with there and then we moved to Nebraska. Nebraska doesn't allow homebirths, I debated just having an "emergency" homebirth where we just let it happen and Jamie catches but that is a misdemeanor in that state. You can catch your own baby but I, at that time, couldn't wrap my brain around catching my baby while I was trying to push it out. I just couldn't. That's so amazing, women who reach down and grab their own baby, it's like a super power. So with him we went to the hospital, and you just get swept into the system. What his birth taught me was, have a doula! Why wouldn't I have a doula? I didn't have a doula for his birth, one came with my midwife at Priya's birth, it was a package deal. Which was awesome, I would totally want to work like that too. That is how I see practicing. I didn't have one for Graeme's.
Me: Do you think the whole situation with Graemes's birth just put you out of your comfort zone so much you just weren't thinking about hiring a doula?
Brandi: Oh yeah, I was so angry and that is a horrible place to be when you are giving birth, in a defensive mode. I felt like I have to watch out for me, I have to watch out for my baby, I have to keep an eye on what they are doing. Constantly pay attention, there was no relax button.
Me: So aside from something going wrong with the birth you are already feeling like things are going horribly wrong?
Brandi: Knowing I couldn't have the homebirth was disappointing, I was already upset when the time cam e to walk into the hospital and have him. In labor I internalize, so when I'm in labor and I have a contraction I get quiet and I go inside (myself). I'm not intentionally shutting the world out but I'm just focusing on what my body needs to do. I felt like, from the moment we walked in the door, I was not going to be able to do that. In triage I'm filling out the paperwork and the nurse is asking me eight million questions and I asked her to stop for a minute because I'm having a contraction and she sighed in disgust, and continued to ask me questions anyway. That continued throughout my entire labor, she came in and said things that were inappropriate. I left negative feedback about that nurse with the hospital, she should not be a labor and delivery nurse. I just felt jilted from the get go. There was another nurse who was in the room most of the time and she was amazing. Jamie said he felt like she was a young Nancy. (Midwife at Priya's birth). She was very reassuring. She told me I was amazing and doing great things. She had said she never saw a mom go natural.
Me: Wow! That's surprising!
Brandi: Yeah, I know.
Me: You had two very different birth experiences personally, how does that show up in your birth work? Do you feel those experiences helps or hurts you?
Brandi: I'm sure it hurts sometimes because I want to tell some of the parents that are going to the hospital not to. As soon as someone tells me they are going to birth in the hospital, depending on the hospital, I'm like oh, no, because I know they aren't going to let her eat. They are not going to let her move around.
Because I have been through both births, both experiences I can pull from that. I have a level of compassion. I also feel that from going through both of those births I have first hand experience of all the options someone could have. I can give them information on different birth locations, the pros and cons of both.
Me: Do you think because of your experience you are happier supporting families in a homebirth setting overall?
Brandi: Oh, yeah!
Me: It's funny that even though you would rather not be in hospitals for birth the path you chose for midwifery is one that you could work in the hospital. You still really feel that its important that medical professionals in hospitals recognize you.
Brandi: It is totally conflicting but yes I do. I have no desire to work in a hospital. It means a lot to be recognized in the hospital so that there is continuity of care. If I ever had to transfer with a client (to the hospital) there would still be the same level of care. In some hospitals they look at you like you are lacking if you aren't a CNM.
Me: You recently got out of the military,this year, after how many years?
Brandi: 15 years
Me: With your exit from the military you just decided to jump right into your midwifery training?
Brandi: I have been putting it on hold for years and years, knowing that that is what I wanted to do. If you go into nursing school you have to be able do your clinicals and with working full time I just didn't want to spend that much time away from my family. To spend so much time away, even if it is professionally building yourself up I just didn't want to do that at that time. But there has always been that pull to that, I always knew that when I got out of the military this is what I was going to do. Whether that was CPM or CNM, I was going to go to school for midwifery. It is really helpful that the military pays for school, not only just pays for school but pays you while you go to school. It's excellent.
Me: When do you think you will be completing your studies to be a midwife?
Brandi: I would like to be done withing 3 years with my RN (Registered Nurse) and then it should be another year, year and a half for the midwifery portion. It just depends on how fast do I really want to do it. I started off slow, only taking two classes at a time, kinda putzing. I just don't want to take eight years to complete it all.
Me: Well, that means you will be a midwife before you are 40! That's great!
Brandi: Yeah, I feel like a lot of women who have chosen this path, at least I have met a lot of women who came to it later in life. Later on recognizing that they... just later in life people realizing that there is another way and slowly transitioning their lives to accomplish that.
If I could turn back time, there was a program in my high school that I went to all the orientations for, with the local community college. You would take classes at the local community college while in high school and it was totally free. I went with the intent on being a nurse but I chose to stay in high school so I didn't miss my choir class. Choir was my favorite(sings)(laughs). So I stayed in high school so I could sing.(laughs)
Me: How is your music career going?
Brandi: Fantastic! (laughing) Maybe I can become the singing doula!
Me: In addition to going to school and birth work you are also still working as a sonographer?
Brandi: I am, I work per diem (at the hospital).
Me: You mentioned you had 8 jobs, what else do you do?
Brandi: I sell CBD oil too. And I'm busy being a mom. Being a "stay at home" mom for the first time, the laundry is the pits, I am not a fan. I is nice to be available for my kids. I feel a bit guilty that I am able to go to Graeme's stuff and wasn't there for all Priya's stuff because I was working. I feel so bad.
Me: Do you have any words of wisdom for a newly pregnant person?
Brandi: Look into all of your options and try no to let other people's trauma take over your mind.
Me: That's good!
Brandi: Everyone wants to tell their birth story, I love telling mine. It can be hard when your friends have difficult experiences.