An Editorial Directorship at Victoria's Secret may not seem like a natural step toward a career in childbirth. However, as so many mothers will relate, for Gabrielle Nancarrow, the birth of her daughter changed everything...
Therefore, after returning to Melbourne from New York City, Gabrielle trained as a doula and opened Gather. Located in Melbourne’s inner-west, Gather is a physical space for women and mothers to come together, to connect and to build community. Something we’re quite passionate about at The Grace Tales. Offering a birth and postpartum doula collective, plus workshops, one-on-ones, yoga, meditation and supportive storytelling circles, Gather is a place for women to come, drink tea and share their stories of birth, life, loss and motherhood without judgement. With her extensive experience and endless curiosity about all things birth, we spoke to Gabrielle about everything from sex in the postpartum period and recovering from traumatic births, through to pregnancy loss and new-mother nourishment. Find out more about Gather
What lead you to launch Gather?
The idea for Gather came to me the day I was told I would miscarry my first baby, in June 2013. I went along for my very first scan at 10 weeks and was told our baby had no heartbeat. I was devastated and felt totally alone in my grief. What I needed was women around me who understood what I was going through. I didn’t have that. One year later, I gave birth to a baby girl with the love and support of a doula. I had a wonderful birth and felt very held and cared for during the experience by her. We found our doula at Carriage House Birth in New York where we were living at the time and when I arrived home to Melbourne and found I was pregnant with my second daughter I looked for a doula but found it difficult to find and connect with one. It was then that I decided to make the vision of Gather a reality: a haven of self-care, storytelling and community for women. We have birth, loss and postpartum doulas, workshops, yoga, meditation, one-on-ones with a herbalist, massage therapist and sexologist, and supportive circles for women to share their stories of birth, life, loss and motherhood. All the things I want and need as a woman and as a mother.
Do you ever miss corporate life in New York? Talk us through what you did in NYC with Victoria’s Secret and some highlights of your time working for that company?
I do miss it, sometimes. I loved the company and the role and the lifestyle. I led the editorial team at Victoria’s Secret PINK, which meant managing content for the entire brand—digital, print and stores. I travelled regularly on private jets, worked on photo shoots and backstage at the fashion show every year and had such an inspiring and creative manager who I remain very close to and very good friends with today. There were very high expectations and pretty much no downtime in the five years I was there but I really loved that job and felt very comfortable in the role. When I became a mother, though, things started to shift for me. I went back to work full-time too soon, when I wasn’t ready emotionally or physically, and still kind of wish I had that time over. If I did, I’d have taken more time to rest and bond with my baby girl and ease my way into motherhood. As it was, I hardly had time to recover from the birth and massive emotional and physical changes before heading back to the office, pumping non-stop and trying to balance new motherhood with a hugely demanding role in a city a long way from home. It was hard.
Gather offers sex and relationship guidance. Relationships deteriorate in the first year after having a child – why is this? How important is sex in relationships? And how do we get out of a rut?
I think it’s because women are often so depleted, exhausted, touched out and emotionally and physically recovering from childbirth which is huge. And I don’t think it’s contained to the first year of motherhood, I think it goes way beyond that. There is a wonderful book called The Fourth Trimester by Kimberly Ann Johnson which talks about sex after birth being an evolution. It’s not ever going to be the same, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be better than before. I think it’s important that we as women have open and honest conversations about our needs and desires so our partners understand where we are at. I’m not an expert on this but I know how important it is so included sexology as part of the Gather offering. Our sexologist Vanessa Muradian is available for one-on-one sessions and also runs regular workshops in which she holds space for these important conversations among women.
After having a child, a lot of women don’t feel sexy. How do you encourage confidence in your clients?
Most of my time with clients is in the prenatal phase so we focus a lot on the strength of the female body and on the physiological changes both prenatally and during labour and delivery. But yes, many women don’t feel at their best during postpartum when a daily shower feels like an achievement. I think it’s important to acknowledge what your body has been through and to give it time to heal. You’re probably not going to feel sexy for a while but that’s okay—you’ve given birth! The saying, “you’ll get your body back” feels odd to me. You are still very much in your body; it has evolved, of course, but it never left. And confidence can be really hard as a new mum as well; be it body confidence or confidence as a mother. I think easing your way back into the things you love is important, whether that be yoga, running, meditation, dinner with friends—whatever makes you happy. And trusting your gut when it comes to motherhood. Always trust your gut.
Talk us through how female energy bodies are different from males?
I’m learning so much more about this and really trying to embrace both my feminine and my masculine, my heart and mind, my yin and yang—I think it’s the key to finding balance. We all have female and male energy bodies within us and it’s important to acknowledge and nurture both. To me the feminine is empathetic, nurturing, loving, feeling and creating, while the masculine is practical, reasonable and good at setting boundaries (which I’m trying to get better at). Meditation is a great way to connect and balance these energies and I’m leaning more into that as I learn more about the incredible benefits and much-needed awareness it brings.
Talk us through your approach to dealing with miscarriage or still births?
There is still so much silence around pregnancy loss in our culture. At Gather we hold space for women to share their stories of pregnancy loss including miscarriage stillbirth as a way to honour both their experiences and the babies they have lost. Storytelling can be a powerful part of the healing journey and being able to speak your story out loud and in full to a circle of women who have been through similar experiences can be profound. There is empathy, connection and a realisation that you are not alone. We also have doulas who works primarily with women experiencing pregnancy loss. It is so important to have support around you and to talk as much as you feel able to about your experience.
Abortion is still a taboo topic – but women who need to terminate their child for their own reasons still feel loss. How can they also heal? There’s also a lot of shame around abortion – how do you deal with this in your clients?
It saddens me that it’s still a taboo topic. Women who have experienced abortion can feel a huge sense of loss and of pain and we as a society need to care for them, support them and honour their story. I think there is a lot of healing that can happen when these women talk about their experiences and unfortunately there are not enough safe spaces for this to happen. We offer this at Gather and we also have our loss doulas to support women through what is often an incredibly difficult and vulnerable time.
There is education on how to care for an infant but women receive very minimal instructions on how to be cared for themselves – why do so many mothers feel abandoned after they give birth? How can we take better care of mothers?
Women feel abandoned because all the attention is suddenly on the baby, not on them. There is a quote I love, “The new mother is as vulnerable as her newborn”. It’s from a beautiful book called The First Forty Days by Heng Ou. And it is so, so true. For the first forty days, women should rest and bond with their baby and, if they are breastfeeding, learn to breastfeed. Nothing else. We need to give ourselves permission to be mothered, cared for, nourished and loved so we have the time and space to emotionally and physically heal from birth and connect with our babies. I tell all my clients that after giving birth they will have a placenta-sized wound in their uterus. I think it’s a healful visualisation and encourages them to stop, rest and take the time to heal. And how can we as a culture and society take better care of mothers? We can listen to them for a start. Ask them how they are—how they really are. And listen without bombarding them with advice or trying to shift the narrative of what they are saying. And we can visit them after the baby is born to nourish and look after them, not to see the baby. Focus on the mother—she needs so much love and care.
What are some of the biggest challenges/blocks you help your clients overcome?
Fear of childbirth is a big one. Many of us have grown up with an idea that birth is painful and terrible and not in the least bit empowering. Helping them make a conscious shift to believe in their body and in their power and arming them with empowering books, information and education can be profound. And if the birth didn’t turn out the way they had hoped? Holding space for them, listening to them and helping them process their experience. Postpartum brings with it its own set of challenges. Your identity shifts, your relationship changes, you’re sleep-deprived, exhausted and sometimes (a lot of the time?) you feel like you’re failing. It can be overwhelming. I tell all my clients to ask for help before the baby comes to set themselves up for a healthy postpartum. So many women find it hard to ask for help but this is the time to do it. If the mother is fed, the world is fed.
We all strive to be comfortable in our own skin – how can we move towards this daily? As mothers, we’re often so critical of ourselves…
Self-care and self-love are thrown around a lot but I think they’re really important, physically and emotionally. It’s important to remember who we are as women beyond our role as mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend. What matters to us and how can we nurture that? And you’re right, the self-criticism is real. I am really conscious of this especially as the mother of two daughters. Accepting, embracing, honouring and really knowing our bodies without judgement and with love and care is so important.
How can you prepare your body for birth – physically, mentally, spiritually?
Birth is an embodied experience – it’s about letting go and embracing the unknown. Don’t fear it. Don’t resist it. I remind all my clients that the uterus is a muscle and during labour it’s working hard. I think that’s a helpful visualisation. Physically, think about what comforts you in life as it is often the same for birth. Do you like to be touched, held, left alone? Mentally, remember that birth is not rational, you cannot think your way through it. You have to learn to let go. And bring things into your birth space that nourish you spiritually: crystals, mantras, essences – whatever it is that makes you feel safe and protected. And remember that if you wanted a drug-free birth but ended up having an epidural, or a cesarean, you have not failed. You have birthed your baby, and what an incredible thing that is.
As a doula, what are some practical tips you can give our readers for preparing for birth?
Be informed. It’s good to trust your care providers but it’s also very important to understand your rights and ask the tough questions. Trust your gut. If you’re not getting the answers you need from your doctor or midwife then change care provider. Understand the physiological stages of labour and the hormones that are present in your body during each stage. Do your research on natural and synthetic pain-relief and learn what happens during a cesarean so that if it happens you don’t feel so blindsided. Understand the birth culture in Australia and learn the difference between the medical model of care and the natural birth process. Listen to birth stories. Hire a doula. Do the work. Birth changes us on every level of our being. It’s unpredictable but the more informed you are the more in control you will feel.
What can women expect in the days that follow birthing a child?
I remember after the birth of her first baby Chrissy Teigen tweeted, “No one told me I’d be coming home in diapers too”. I loved this and felt exactly the same after I had my first baby. So many NO ONE TOLD MEs! We need to talk more about what’s normal and what’s not in the early days postpartum. It’s different for every woman depending on the birth they had but most women experience some blood loss, often uterine cramping as the uterus shrinks, and as our milk comes in we might feel engorged. We can be emotional with a surge in hormones, feel overwhelmed, feel ecstatic, have night sweats, tender nipples. It’s so different for every woman but it’s important to keep an open dialogue with your care provider if you’re worried about anything you feel isn’t quite right.
How can a traumatic birth impact a mother’s life – and how can she process the trauma when there’s so much going on settling into life with a new baby?
It’s so important to seek professional help following birth trauma, whether that be physical or emotional trauma, to start to heal your body and process your story so you can create the emotional space you need to mother your baby. Many women who have had a traumatic birth feel that they can’t share their pain because “they’re healthy and the baby is healthy”, as if that’s all that matters. It’s not all that matters — far from it. Let’s start listening to mothers and really hearing them. It can do a lot to help women feel less alone and help them as they shift into this new role as mother.
Can you share a birthing story you’ll never forget?
I recently supported one of my oldest and dearest friends during the birth of her first child. It was a long and challenging unmedicated labour in hospital. She was so strong and patient as she brought her baby girl into the world and her belief in herself never really wavered. I remember at one point we locked eyes and she said, “this is not what I thought it was going to be like”. But she never gave up. She pushed for four hours. It was intense for everyone in the room but she just kept going. It is incredible to watch a woman so focused yet so out of body at the same time. On her very last push, she caught her baby and brought her up onto her chest and simply said, “I did it.” I feel so privileged to witness this moment time and time again.
What are some simple practices and home remedies to facilitate healing and restore energy in women after they have a baby?
My number one: ask for help. It’s not a sign of weakness – it’s needed more than ever in the early months postpartum. And I work very closely with our herbalist at Gather and our postpartum doulas so that our clients can continue to be supported after they give birth. Our herbalist, Caitlin provides a wealth of information and care in the postpartum period and some of her simple advice and practices include: a focus on simple, nourishing foods (bone broth, veggie broth) and herbs to help replenish mum’s body post birth. Drinking a herbal tea mix of nettle (for blood and iron stores), raspberry leaf (to tone the uterus) and oatstraw (to nourish the nervous system) is a wonderful combination to start with. And if mum is wanting to breastfeed she can add fennel seed or anise seed to this tea to promote more milk flow.
What are some of the complex and often conflicting emotions that arise postpartum?
There’s a term you may have heard called matrescence, otherwise known as the process of becoming a mother. The physical and hormonal shifts that happen to a woman during this time are huge and are so often minimised by our culture. At Gather, we offer workshops that focus on this identity shift and talk a lot about the hormonal shifts, the changes to our sexuality and our relationships and all the emotions that come with being a mother: guilt, anger, elation, isolation, frustration. By talking about it we’re working to normalise it and help women and mothers feel less alone.
How often do you meditate and how can meditation play a role in the life of a busy mother? What can it do for her?
I used to think meditation wouldn’t be effective unless I had 20 minutes to be still and focus, but that was pretty much impossible when I became a mother. Little moments throughout the day can be very effective and that is what I aim for. Meditation can help ground you, give you a sense of clarity and focus when things feel out of control and it just feels good. I try to put my phone away at night and meditate for a few minutes just before bed. It helps me sleep better and I feel more rested in the morning.