Earlier this week, I spent my day at my last birth. Yes, this was the last birth I’ll attend as a doula. (Someone told me I shouldn’t talk so concretely about it… that I should tag on “for now” or something… Maybe. I suppose it could be called a sabbatical. But for now it feels final, and I feel really comfortable with that.)
I’ve been in birth work for almost exactly ten years. The burn out rate for a doula is three years, and I’ve rounded that circumference three times. Possible, I’m sure, only because I have kept my practice small, and have taken breaks when needed. But still, there’s a reason doulas burn out so quickly.
For years I have hovered on the fence of every birth wondering if this would be my last one. If this would be the birth that would have me wagging my middle finger at the institution as I smugly peeled out of the parking ramp for the last time.
But it never went down like that. Something that always startles me is the mixture of emotion involved in a birth – the amalgamation of beauty and fear and panic and endurance. Birth is never a straight forward, linear experience. There are always twists and turns – one moment I’m melting on the floor in a puddle of my own tears from the sheer beauty and awe of a laboring mama, and the next my adrenaline is pumping, my mind is racing, scrambling amidst the chaos, searching for the best support, the best connection.
This last birth was special. Special, yes, because it was my last birth as a doula, but special, too, because it was a homebirth with dear friends of mine. I felt more room than ever to be present in the moment. To soak in the experience. Connection was real and easy, like it is between friends.
Mama was feeling overwhelmed (as all mamas do at some point in labor). She was working so hard, staying on top of the rushes as they came every few minutes, each one more intense than the last. The warm water she was submerged in was soothing, and her partner and I traded the roles of pouring water over her back and sitting face to face with her – sometimes talking softly, sometimes stroking her hair or rubbing her shoulders.
The midwife sat in a rocking chair in the corner of the small room. She rocked quietly, and her voice rose from the corner, when needed, lulling soft encouragement. When the mantra from mama turned to the anticipated, “I can’t do this anymore,” Midwife’s tone turned matronly and stern as she said the woman’s name – a voice that said, “I mean business; listen.” She got mom’s eyes – her desperate, panicked, wild eyes – and she stopped rocking, leaned in, and said, “You CAN do it. You ARE doing it. You need to dig deep. Find that place of strength deep inside of you. It will get you to places you never thought possible.”
And mama would dig deep and get through it, and a couple of contractions later she would find herself back to where she was before – drowning in the seemingly endless waves. Trying frantically to stay afloat amidst the self-doubt and exhaustion that all laboring mamas know. After the rush, it would get perfectly quiet. Mom would close her eyes, her brow still furrowed though the contraction had subsided. It was that time in labor where even the rest periods feel troublesome; where it feels as though the enormity of labor will never end.
Softly, Midwife said, “I just thought of this chant. I’m going to sing it, and you just tell me to stop if you need to.” She began singing from the corner, soft at first, then crescendoing like a ceremonial drum to match the waves and moans erupting from the pool in steady rhythm.
Mama melted like a stick of butter in a too-small pan. The lines in her forehead erased, all her limbs fell flaccid as though asleep. The only sounds were of the water falling in thin sheets from the pitcher to exposed skin and the ebb and flow of the sacred song – it was keeping her afloat and she was riding it with all her heart.
Right before my tears hit the floor, I thought, “Every woman should know this; every woman should get to have this experience. Almost no woman does; not even most homebirth mamas.” My emotions were of mixed gratitude – for this family, for this experience, for my honor of bearing witness to this beauty. And of deep sadness – of the knowing that comes from too many years of bearing witness to the contrary atmosphere of birth for most women.
I am grateful for an activist friend and mentor who pushed me – pretty hard – in finally sticking my landing. It was the shove I needed; the perspective I was missing; the affirmation that only someone immersed in the movement could give. I’m thankful for the years of bearing witness – for the foundation that it laid.
The work ahead is huge. And it has my full attention.