Misty McLaughlin’s pregnancy two years ago was not an easy one. Because of complications, she was in and out of the hospital during her last trimester, and she wondered if she would still be able to give birth at home, as she had hoped.
But McLaughlin’s now-2-year-old son Iver was born at home. She credits not only her midwife and back-up medical team, but also the encouragement and support of her “flock” at Birth Roots.
“After you’ve been through this experience, you can’t imagine having a child without the support,” McLaughlin says. “It set the tone for my whole parenting experience. It’s been so influential for my husband and I.”
Birth Roots is a nonprofit, community-based perinatal resource center offering support throughout pregnancy and in the first year after birth. It was founded in 2004 by Leah Deragon and Emily Murray, who worked together in the early 2000s as doulas – labor support professionals who work with pregnant women and their partners during birth – at the Ballard House, a birth clinic in Portland.
Birth Roots offers childbirth education in a series of classes or in one-day intensives that focus on certain aspects, such as labor support skills and “body-mind birthing.” These classes, which range in price from $30 to $300, are increasingly recommended by obstetricians and midwives to their patients in southern Maine. According to Deragon and Murray, their clientele is a diverse mix with no common demographic.
“We have older mothers, younger mothers, lesbian moms,” says Deragon, 39, and the mother of a 3-year-old boy. “We’re like a lighthouse sending out a beacon.”
Deragon and Murray are both trained doulas. The rationale behind the doula concept is that while midwives and doctors are focused on the birth and the baby, the woman in labor needs someone to give encouragement, advice, massages and information on what is happening in the moment.
Birth Roots, the organization, goes well beyond childbirth and labor support, however. There are classes in breastfeeding, baby care and early parenting, as well as free, drop-in support groups called “Eat, Sleep, Nurse” and “Mama Nest.” The Birth Roots space, which is a warm, womb-like, cheery basement in a brick building across the street from the old Mercy Hospital, is a place where moms with leaky breasts and dark circles under their eyes can come and relax on the cushioned love seats (and not be judged when their babies begin to wail at the top of their lungs).
Sarah McLaughlin, whose son Joshua is now 3, went through childbirth preparation classes at Birth Roots in 2007 and continued on with after-birth classes. One of the things she appreciated about the after-birth classes was the opportunity to “unpack” the experience of childbirth.
“It’s such a transformative rite of passage. We can have a lot of anxiety around it,” she says. “Reflecting on the birth process helps you move forward into early parenting.”
Murray and Deragon emphasize that Birth Roots has no particular agenda and actively eschews the “alternative” label that is sometimes applied to it. Groups certainly do talk about ideas outside the mainstream, such as home birth and co-sleeping, but only as a way to support members who are considering them.
Yet, there’s no doubt that most Birth Roots families share the desire and curiosity to explore alternatives, whether they end up choosing a more mainstream path. Close to 90 percent of Birth Roots clients are either first-time parents or parents whose first experience was traumatizing in some way.
“The common ground is motivation to seek out additional services,” Deragon adds.
According to Deragon and Murray, Birth Roots fills a need that the medical community is not able to fill, and a need that our culture – which either sends working moms back to work after six to eight weeks or leaves them in isolation – largely ignores.
“The hugest need is a connection to other mothers,” says Deragon. “We don’t diagnose postpartum depression. We work very hard to prevent it, by getting them through those first 12 weeks.”
To that end, the groups that form at Birth Roots become ongoing support systems, “a flock” of new moms who come together to commiserate, discuss and find meaning in their shared experiences.
“‘Is this normal?’ is a question that comes up so many times in our groups,” says Murray, who is 35 and has a 6-year-old daughter. “We don’t have to answer the questions for them. They come together with other mothers and answer it themselves. We help them develop a parenting muscle.”
Though her son is 2 and she’s officially graduated from her postpartum status, Misty McLaughlin is still connected to Birth Roots in various ways. She’s become a board member, is involved in fundraising, and participates in a monthly support group for female parents of male children. And while she and her initial support group of “Blossoming Newborns” have moved on, she still gets together for play dates and other events at Birth Roots with many of the 20 families who had children within six weeks of each other two years ago.
“Ninety percent of the people we know in Maine, we know through Birth Roots,” says McLaughlin, whose family resides in Texas. “It’s a support system that will stick with you. Because of Birth Roots, I can’t imagine parenting anywhere else.”
A Closer Look
Birth Roots has a growing web presence that has increased its visibility. The Birth Roots Facebook page (www.facebook.com/birthroots) has 1,200-plus friends, and is full of links to other websites, and books and movie suggestions. The conversations and status updates are lively too, covering such topics recently as “unplugging the Christmas machine” and Target’s anti-breastfeeding policies.
The Birth Roots website, www.ourbirthroots.org, has an 80-page, perinatal resource guide that can be downloaded or read online. From holistic practitioners to family friendly businesses, there is a wealth of information for new moms.
Finally, Birth Roots holds events to raise money and celebrate its community. These include the baby- and toddler-friendly New Year’s Eve dance party, called the Baby Boogie, and the annual sandcastle making event at Pine Point Beach, called Sandsations.
Some Birth Roots babies hang out together.
Birth Roots babies and moms. The organization offers classes in
breastfeeding, baby care and early parenting, as well as free,
drop-in support groups called “Eat, Sleep, Nurse” and “Mama
Emily Murray, left, and Leah Deragon founded Birth Roots in