If you want to be a doula, you need strong hands, a strong heart and a strong bladder. And you need patience. Lots and lots of patience. You need to be able to sit with a labouring woman enduring the most intense experience of her life (and often the most painful, too) for fifteen, twenty, perhaps thirty hours – for as long as it takes her to birth that baby. To birth herself as a mother.
While you are sitting there, wiping her face and breathing along with her, you cannot afford to be asking yourself: “How long is this going to take?” For you are modelling to the mom exactly how to stay in the present; how to take each contraction as it comes without telling herself stories about how long she has suffered or about how much longer it could go on. You need to be in that birth room, patiently and wholeheartedly, as if there exists no other reality under the sun. Yes, you may be worrying about your three-year-old who has a fever, or about whether you’ll be done here in time to take your daughter to her ballet lesson, but you have to learn the discipline to keep bringing yourself back to this very moment – to this very mother that is counting on you to be strong when she needs to be vulnerable and filled with doubt.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am no patron saint of patience! In fact, in the real world, I have precious little. Just ask my family! Much to my shame, I am your classical Type A personality, trying to get places as fast as humanly possible and to cram every moment so full of activity that there is little time to breathe. I overuse (okay, abuse) my hooter and have earned more than my share of speeding tickets – and not only en route to births! Boredom drives me bonkers: I never leave home without at least one book and some writing materials; I won’t allow a single minute to pass unused. I admit to having tried to read at red lights in the past, but have now given up on that dangerous practice. Returning calls on my cell phone is much more productive – at least I don’t need to stop talking every time the light turns green!
Still, when I enter a room with a labouring woman I deliberately shake off my impatience. This has become second nature: I do it instantly, instinctively – impatiently! – the way a dog rids himself of excess moisture. Calm descends upon me and time takes on a completely new – a much slower – rhythm.
I make a small ritual of removing my wristwatch whenever I enter a birth room. It is only when the mom asks me about the time that I will remember to lift my gaze to the omnipresent clock on the wall. Contrary to what you might imagine, I don’t even partake in the timing of contractions, that strange ritual that accompanies birth in Western culture. If timing gives the dad a feeling of usefulness and purpose, I do not discourage it. It keeps him occupied. But instead of watching the clock, I prefer to watch the mommy. I listen to her breathing, to every sound she makes. I hear each word she utters not only with my heart, but with my innermost being – trying to understand it with my brain but also with every fibre of my body. I strive to listen with the complete neutrality of compassion, a compassion in which a whispered ‘thank you’ is no sweeter than a yelled swear word. With the greatest of interest I watch the emotions that play out across each woman’s tired face: the sweat that glistens like diamonds on her forehead, the hair that sticks in clammy strings to her face, the frown that digs its way down between her eyebrows. I note the places her hands flee during contractions so I can rub where it really hurts. I watch her toes to see if they are curling, her belly to ascertain if it is sinking lower. My hands feel for the bulging of her sacrum under my palms as I press them deeply into her back. I observe her so closely to try and anticipate her every need, to try and read each gesture cognitively as well as intuitively.
Although the stillness of prayer and formal sitting meditation has always called to me, attending births and writing have become my truest spiritual practices instead. Being present at a labour is the ultimate experience of being in the moment for me. Time stands still, ego falls away, and I feel compassion in the deepest possible sense. When things get really intense, even the woman’s personal identity is emptied out. I know this sounds strange, but sometimes, when I have followed the mom really deeply into the woods of Labourland, a strange disorientation possesses me. If I have to venture out of the birthing room in that state, perhaps to fetch some ice or a cold drink for the mom, I tend to forget who I am attending. If the receptionist, comes across me and asks who is in labour, I often find my mind a blank. I stumble over my words and have to think very hard. I have to pull myself out of the altered state of consciousness far enough to remember everyday distinctions. For that woman has become Everywoman to me – an universal labouring mother. Perhaps you think that this lessens my compassion, that losing the sense of a woman’s unique individuality is the opposite of being totally present to her. Believe me when I tell you that it actually increases it. For when the mother I am attending to ceases to be Mia or Helen or Precious, my individual likes and dislikes, my all-too-human prejudices and judgements, cease to operate. I become empty, scooped out, a vehicle of pure compassion. The labouring mother becomes the centre – the very axis – of my entire universe. Nothing matters but holding the space for her, the space that will allow her body to birth this baby.