This post is about birth workers, because I don’t think any of us take much time to describe what it’s like to do this kind of work. We are so good at focusing on mom’s and dad’s and baby’s and talking with them about their experiences that we often don’t have the space to talk about what it’s like being with them in their journey’s. I think that’s a good thing, because I do believe that birth has everything to do with the family and nothing to do with us. After a few births recently I feel like it’s time for some transparency and vulnerability, similar to what we say moms have to experience in birth. Hope you enjoy!
There’s this moment after you’ve had the call to come, when you’ve finished packing everything you think you might need, and you step outside of your home one last time. You know that as you close that door and turn to walk away you will be returning a different person. Sometimes the changes are so small and finite that you transition back to your life seamlessly, but there’s always those births that challenge you deep into the core of your being and cause you to have to readjust who you have become back into your life as you left it.
The birth workers experience in a minor way mirrors what happens to mothers in labour. I always feel this letting go happening, as I kiss my husband goodbye, finish putting my life on hold for the foreseeable future and get into my car to drive. I’m letting go of my life and I’m switching all of my thoughts, emotions and energy onto that woman in labour. It’s like stepping into a different time zone or alternate universe. Of course I know that my world is going on without me and I’m missing out and there are people missing me, but it’s like I switch to a different place where all of that is existing in an alternate universe, because now I’m locked into a moment in time with a different couple, in a different life, going through something completely transformational with me as a witness and support to them. There isn’t always room within me to hold onto both places, so I let go and immerse myself into her time.
I always feel this moment of leaving somewhere in my body. Sometimes there’s a pain in my heart that I willingly do something that can affect me so deeply, but other times there is a bubbling of excitement and anticipation because I know that no matter what happens in some minor way I will be challenged, and I will overcome and that this birth has something to teach me about myself. Just as I know that mom is going to be challenged at the root of who she is and she too will overcome.
That’s what birth is. It turns your daily routine and patterns upside down, it takes you deep into a primal place of passage, there’s a grief as you let go of yourself before this baby is here, and an anticipation of this new life with this baby. There’s an ebb and flow, a letting go and a holding on. Letting go of control and holding on to the process of birth that so many women before you have gone through. It’s beautiful and terrifying all at once.
As I drive, I shift all of myself towards this woman (literally and figuratively). And I truly am consumed with this birth. Once I arrive and the support begins, I barely notice the passage of time, similar to the woman and her partner. We all know that we’re in a different time zone now (even if the place we’re birthing at disagrees, more on that another time!) and we settle into a rhythm and ritual of being together as we help this process along.
I only notice myself when I leave the room and tap back into my time zone for awhile. It’s then when I feel the sore muscles, the burning eyes and the slightly faint feeling from not knowing when the last real meal you had was. Depending on the birth sometimes leaving the room makes me realize how much of myself I am giving. I can feel my tank draining while using everything in my doula bag to plug the holes. You see, I’m not just giving hip squeezes while squatting for a minute, or massaging backs and hands, I’m holding an emotional space for her. I’m loving her, her staff, her process, her baby. I’m flooding the room with positivity, with faith and trust in birth. I’m doing what everyone else is too busy to do. I’m holding space for the spiritual and emotional process of birth. Because it isn’t just about vital signs and cervical dilation progress, or fetal heart tones and mothers blood pressure. It’s also about her emotional state, her baby’s feelings as it transitions, what the dad is experiencing as he too lets go of who he used to be and continues into the unknown. There is so much happening in a birthing room that can’t be charted, but still needs to be supported.
Sometimes when I’m outside the room and checking in with myself, I can feel the weight of that space I was holding and I take a moment to assess how much of myself is left to give. You see, that’s what birth workers are. We’re givers. We give women trust and faith in birth, reassurances, encouragement, love, understanding, compassion, hip squeezes, supportive squats, massages. We fill the gaps in her care and honor and respect her to the core of who she is.
I use the times I’m not in the room, to fill the holes in my tank. To do quick measures to make sure I can still keep holding space for her. Sometimes brushing my teeth and washing my face is the most magical moment of a long birth. It restores me for hours longer. Sometimes it’s discovering a fabulous couch I can stretch and sink myself into for a nourishing 10 minutes of sleep. Or discovering a space to open my hot meal I packed and truly appreciate what it will do for me. Occasionally, it’s a phone call to my doula partner and sister to hear her say what I need to continue on. That kind of self care even fills that tank back up a bit. But it doesn’t quite ever get you back to the place you were when you walked into the room for the first time. Usually 20 minutes is all I have before I know I need to be back in her space and giving to her to feel okay again. It’s like a transfusion of endurance as I walk back into the room and back into her rhythm.
Even with excellent self care, there always seems to be a slight moment (whether I acknowledge it at the time or not) where a part of me goes “why are you doing this? You know there’s probably several thousand jobs that pay better and take an 1/8th of what you’re giving right now.”
This. This moment right here. This is why I do this.
Because despite how much it takes out of me, I know it’s taking more out of her, and I know that no matter how hard this couple has to fight, how dark the path has to get, that moment of joy and transcendent beauty at the time of birth is worth it all. Seeing a family come into being in one moment, to be so blessed to witness their first tears of joy over their precious baby, to hear that baby take its first breath and then to see them in a triangle of love for over an hour. Knowing how much that will benefit this baby for the rest of its life and how much that bonding is going to aid this couples ability to parent from a grounded place.
It’s everything. There are some births where you can see how much of a difference you made for them and that they might not have gotten there without your steadfastness, (or your backup partners because you had to call her in!) and there are others where you can’t see your affect quite as easily, but you still know you were the one person grounded and breathing in the room as that baby made its entrance into the world.
I’d love to have the chance like in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” to take myself out of every single birth I’ve been at and see what it all would have looked like without me. I’d love that chance to learn and see first hand why I’m doing this. Without that really obvious and unrealistic way of knowing, you have to trust in your own evaluation of your work, and the feedback of your clients to see the areas you were most helpful and to see where you can do better next time. I truly believe it doesn’t matter how many births you’ve attended, what’s so much more important is the humility to say, “how can I do this better next time” and even if you did make a tangible difference to still say “that mother did all the work, I simply supported what her body was designed to do”. It’s really not about us, it’s ALL about that family and the moment of birth is a beautiful illustration of that.
Written by Sarah McCloskey