My phone is just inches from me. And yet, my fingers still fidget with the screen, concerned I may have missed something. This waiting game is the hardest part of a doula’s work.
I’m anticipating a call from a client who’s in early labor. I wonder how she’s doing, what she’s doing. In fact, I have a hundred questions. But I have to hold back and not intrude in her story. Like a sprinter who doesn’t know when the gun will sound, I wait for this call, rehearsing my readiness on repeat.
The empathic journey of doula work has begun. From here, I cannot consider myself separate. I am joined to her and her metamorphosis from one to two.
I hear her baby’s steady heartbeat on the monitor as I approach her hospital room. She is moored to a stretcher, coiled in wires and cables. Her face is crumpled. She looks like a gull that has become knotted up in the detritus of sea waste that gets washed ashore. I lock eyes with her and help redirect her focus inward to baby and the calm waters that surround him.
I encourage her to stay there, where it is safe, and to allow her body to sway with the ebb and flow of her inner current. Her breathing deepens. Her shoulders give way. The fluorescent lights dim, the beeping and electrical hums fade, people’s footsteps recede into the background.
In this space with a laboring woman, time stands still. There is no phone, schedule or any connection at all to the world outside this room. My purpose here is breathtakingly simple: to be attuned and inseparable from this woman who is transforming.
This singular focus is deeply liberating. I don’t feel spread thin from worry, wonder and the trappings of my own life. I relish these days I spend outside of my life, perfectly present, in this utter clarity. To enter someone’s world and enmesh so intimately in their experience is not just an honor, it’s also an escape.
She stands and holds her partner, head on his shoulder, her giant belly between them. I squeeze her hips and sacrum from behind. Her partner and I are her buttresses. We hold her hands, her feet, her face—whatever part feels as though it’s sinking.
“You will not break,” I remind her. “You can let go completely. This is the power that is needed to bring your baby to you. Let him go. Let your baby go.”
I am with her for every breath. We move, drift and dip along. I suggest different breathing techniques and offer position changes. I guide her through visualizations and help her find rhythms and rituals that provide comfort for a spell and then cease to. The urgency of her body is building.
She tries to fight off the deluge of sensation and then spirals into panic. I massage her back and whisper, “What you are feeling cannot be stronger than you because it is you.” She doubts herself and then plunges. No hands or words can reach her. This is part of the surrender and the relinquishing of control. “Your body was wise enough to have created a baby, trust that it knows exactly how to release him,” I remind her. “You are doing everything right.”
She’s in my arms, the whole of her weight descending on me. I hold her like a mother holds her baby. Then she finds my eyes and with heavy, desperate breaths tells me, “I can’t do this anymore.” I know that her admission is the key to accepting what’s before her. I see so much strength in her, so much deep-seated courage. And so I become her mirror and beam it back to her.
She takes me in. She trusts my trust in her and allows herself to let go with new resolve. I try to act as invisibly as possible in the labor room, to be indistinguishable from her awareness of herself. To feel I’ve truly succeeded as a doula, my measure is that she is unaware of her dependence on me—my strength becomes her strength, my guidance pours into her. The affirmations I whisper are beliefs she already holds.
All of this feels—for her—as though it is spouting from her deepest well. And it is, because I am her shadow, and we’re locked in this intuitive dance.
Amid a burst of low, guttural howls, her baby is born. She wails with relief and ecstasy at his departure and simultaneous arrival into her arms. She takes him in and beams. Her joy expands the room. We all feel a lightness overtake us.
The privilege of observing a birth is unlike any other. It is to watch a woman undergo the greatest transmutation possible next to being born and dying—to leave behind her former self and emerge anew as a mother. Birth is the closest I’ve ever felt to something truly holy—something so vast and endearingly mysterious. I’m stricken with awe and wonder every time.
So I return, again and again, hooked. At the end of it all, the new mama receives her baby. And what does the doula receive? Why am I committed to this work? Because I get to be liberated from my own life and I get to feel both needed and essential to someone in a state of intense empathy. I get to experience the pure honor and privilege of being present for something in-expressively profound. I get to feel depleted and empty because I have given all I have and all I’m made of to this work.
And in this giving over of myself and stepping out of my own way, I feel full of purpose, exquisitely strong and profoundly connected with this world and humankind. I leave this new family after a few hours. They are lost somewhere in a sleepy reverie—warm, comfortable, fed and dozing.
I feel I have to sort of peel myself away and reacquaint myself with my own body. I stagger home, feeling the first tingling sensations of the birth-room high beginning its inevitable fade. By the time I reach my apartment, the full weight of postpartum descends. I cry. I always cry. I need this purge, to release all of the magnificent intensity of what I just witnessed. It’s my letting go, from two beings—three actually—into just one again.