Diary of an Unpaid Intern: Day 1

I come from a village in New Hampshire where the sidewalks roll up on Sundays, where my father comes from too and, in many ways, I am still just a small town kid, one who built her understanding of urban communities in the image of Emerald City. When I learned that my internship site was situated in “downtown Providence,” I conjured a fantasy of gourmet coffee houses, student art galleries, bookstores, hip boutiques, and all the rest. Yet, after two wrong turns and one inquiry for directions, I didn’t end up on College Hill.

I recognized 386 by its sea foam green exterior, a desert ocean among crumbling brick, boarded windows, and vacant commercial properties. I had never seen this side of Providence; actually, I had never seen more than I wanted to see of Providence: Brown, RISD, and H&M. The Rhode Island Statehouse looms magnificently over the southern end of Smith Street and, in first charting my course, I mistakenly followed its shadow, but my destination was, as I might have anticipated, down the road less traveled. Two minutes walking north brought me face-to-face with the reality that, even in a city housing an Ivy League university, some citizens struggle to satisfy their most basic needs.

On 386 Smith Street, there is a drop-in center for women experiencing intimate partner violence, a three-story duplex no more intimidating or conspicuous than its neighbors.  The Smith Street location serves as the main office for Sojourner House, a non-profit agency committed to ending violence against women. The women who live in this neighborhood do not need another reason to be afraid, they do not need an institution — a hospital, a police station, a courthouse — they need a home, a home that welcomes them with open arms and without judgment. I admire Sojourner House for creating a nonjudgmental space where women can speak openly and connect through shared experiences. One of the primary reasons I was initially interested in interning with the agency are the many services offered for emotional recovery; individuals in traumatic situations need someone to talk to who is removed from their situation, especially someone who can say “you’re not alone, I’ve been there too.” My personal experience with depression, anxiety, eating concerns and verbal abuse, among other maladies, has convinced me that suffering in silence, though it may seem somehow noble or indicative of personal strength, will do more harm than good. Though I was initially resistant to seek help, I have come to appreciate the benefits of counseling and group therapy, and welcome the opportunity to facilitate others’ paths to recovery.

As a summer intern, my experience will be immersive; I expect to wear multiple hats during my time at the agency, providing administrative support one day and facilitating group activities the next, so that I may leave with a full portrait of the duties necessary to keep a successful non-profit organization afloat. I hope to acquire professional knowledge and skills through an introduction to writing and applying for grants, as well as an understanding of the legal and social services available to women in abusive relationships. More importantly, though, I hope to meet and connect with strong, inspirational women, and expand my knowledge of maintaining healthy relationships, both with others and with myself. I look forward to listening and learning from others’ stories, in addition to sharing my own.

Through my past volunteer experiences with Grand Aspirations and Rhode Island NOW, I have worked both behind-the-scenes, as a legislative research intern for an advocacy organization, and out in the field, more literally than figuratively, as a project leader/ farm hand in Summer of Solutions. Sojourner House straddles the line between public and private, dividing its efforts between directly serving those impacted by intimate partner violence and reaching out to the local community as advocates for healthy relationships, sexual health, violence prevention and women’s empowerment. While it is important for hiring committees to be selective in choosing interns, it is equally important for interns to be selective in choosing a position. I have chosen this work environment because it will best serve my needs, offering me a comprehensive introduction to the non-profit world and supportive, knowledgeable mentors who will strengthen my passion for public service and social work.

Thoughts on the Business of Being Born

“Birth: it’s a miracle. A rite of passage. A natural part of life. But      more than anything, birth is a business. Compelled to find answers after a disappointing birth experience with her first child, actress Ricki Lake recruits filmmaker Abby Epstein to explore the maternity care system in America. Focusing on New York City, the film reveals that there is much to distrust behind hospital doors and follows several couples who decide to give birth on their own terms. There is an unexpected turn when director Epstein not only discovers she is pregnant, but finds the life of her child on the line. Should most births should be viewed as a natural life process, or should every delivery be treated as a potential medical emergency?”

Sex education taught me to associate motherhood with punishment; sexual activity during one’s  teen years was “reckless,” a form of misbehavior which had dire consequences. Preventative messages highlighted the “un-glamorous” side of motherhood: absent fathers, poverty, “baby weight,” etc. As a 20-year-old young woman, I have been socialized to fear unplanned pregnancy above all else.  Ten years from now, however, when it is socially acceptable for me to bear children, I will be bombarded with contradictions, i.e., “a baby is a blessing” and “motherhood is the greatest thing that will ever happen to you.” When a woman reaches a certain age, she becomes a pariah if she is childless, but how can she see “baby as blessing” after having already accepted “baby as mistake?”

When motherhood happens too early:

When motherhood never happens:

Prior to viewing The Business of Being Born, my conception of childbirth was misinformed, constructed by bits of hearsay and talk-show testimonials. Popular culture has done little to romanticize the birthing experience; in films and television shows, scenes of women’s labor are either omitted or portrayed as trials of agony. I remember watching Jennifer Aniston give birth as Rachel Green in the NBC sitcom Friends, her tears and appeals for drugs competing with a raucous laugh track, her hair and makeup remaining flawless as she pushed out a perfectly clean three-month-old. It was jarring to see her pain made into comedy and, perhaps, more jarring, to see screaming and crying used as the universal signal of  “a woman in labor.”

Check out the scene here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nmJ_r6wfWKc

Our country’s obsession with making every task faster, easier, and less intrusive has made us unwilling to experience discomfort. We want everything and more than our parents had, but are willing to put in exponentially less effort to be deserving of it. We want Rachel Green’s flawless post-baby figure, but could do without her scream-inducing labor pains. Because painless is preferred to painful, modern women often welcome interventions by medical professionals who are able to expedite the process and achieve the same end result.

There are still women, though, who believe that “the journey is the reward,” who value every month of pregnancy and every hour of labor for its contribution to the overall experience. These are the women who choose natural childbirth; they are amazed by the intuition of the female body, and seek to be an active participant during the birthing process rather than a semi-conscious vessel. In the film, one critic of natural childbirth states “It’s the macho-feminists who like to say ‘I did this naturally,’ but [either way] they’ll be pushing a stroller three months later.” On a math exam, if two students choose the correct answer “B,” Student 1 will receive no more credit than Student 2 if s/he uses a more complicated method to solve the problem. In fact, Student 2 may be praised for his/her ability to produce the correct answer more efficiently. The same should not be true for birth. It is an achievement to “do it the hard way,” not one that women expect to get extra credit for but, rather, a personal achievement. I suspect that a certain self-satisfaction, or sense of empowerment, comes from the ability to say “My body did this.”

The Business of Being Born prompted me to reconsider the meaning of the term “natural birth.” I always assumed that “naturally” was synonymous with (1) vaginally and (2) drug-free. Like the doctors in the film, I failed to acknowledge the emotional and environmental components which make a “natural birth” truly unique. The majority of the natural births featured in the film took place in mothers’ homes, rather than in a hospital. While in her own home, a mother has more control over her environment, and feels more at ease because she is familiar with her surroundings. She is free from the anxiety of giving birth in a “private” vs. “semi-private” vs. “shared” space, because her home is her own space. Hospitals possess an innately fast-paced environment, because they are public facilities which have many patients to see in one day. For this reason, doctors must learn to manage their time efficiently. Mothers who want a one-on-one relationship with healthcare professionals should steer clear of hospitals, because hospitals are simply not organized to run that way. Often times, mothers see nurses or nurse practitioners more often than their obstetricians. A midwife has fewer clients than doctors do patients and, therefore, can provide them with more personal care. Midwives are able to make home visits and spend hours with mothers discussing the birth plan and setting up the birthing space.

Another advantage of home birth is freedom from hospital protocol. The     most shocking part of the documentary, for me, was the realization that when a woman gives birth in a hospital she has very little control over her own body. Also surprising were the number of accommodations made for doctors, and disproportionate number made for the comfort and convenience of the mother. In hospitals, women are often urged to compromise their original plan for the convenience of the doctor. If labor lasts longer than the doctor wants it too, the mother may be pressured to take Pitocin when she had previously decided against induction. Women are also forced into the “legs over head” position which restricts their movement, but is easier for the doctor. In a hospital setting, birth is standardized so that it becomes an easily replicable, error-free process. Doctors establish “standard procedures” so that can protect themselves from being held accountable if something goes wrong.

For further insight into birthing in America, Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin & the Farm Midwives is a must-see; watch the trailer here: http://watch.birthstorymovie.com/