Previously by Carly Lane.
Growing up, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t surrounded by birth.
I’m rarely a latchkey kid who frequently comes home to an empty house at the end of a school day. My little sister and I make the trek home from the bus stop, let ourselves in, and ease our backpacks from our aching shoulders. Our mother greets us from wherever she was in the house, asks us about our day, fixes us a snack while we start in on our homework. But there are times when the house is empty, when the front door is locked and I have to make the unfamiliar grab for my keys. There’s the note left on the table in my mom’s looping handwriting: With a client, be back late. Love, Mom.
She isn’t working late in an office, though, or sitting through a dragging conference call. When my mom says “client,” what she means is “mom in labor.”
My mom has interchangeable words for the women she supports in her profession — her clients, or more frequently, her moms. The fact that any one of them can go into labor at any moment means that her hours are decidedly not the traditional 9 to 5. Time waits for no one, and it certainly never waits for a baby.
It never strikes me as odd, trying to explain what my mother does for a living. I often have to repeat myself when someone poses the question. “Doula” is a foreign word to many ears — it comes from the Greek doulē, meaning “woman who serves.” I repeat the word when looks of confusion persist, and offer a helpful definition where needed. But I have never thought of the job as anything out of the ordinary. My mom is a doula, and that’s that.
I don’t remember my earliest feelings about it, but I definitely remember that it doesn’t seem weird to me when my mom is tapped to be a keynote speaker during our sex ed unit in middle school. Eventually we roll around to the segment on childbirth, and I’m sitting in the auditorium with a hundred other students, watching my mother explain the stages of labor to everyone. There’s no embarrassment, no attempt to hide my face or avoid eye contact with anyone. I’m transfixed, filled with a bizarre combination of pride and nervous butterflies for her. Even when she demonstrates the process of dilation with props — a Cheerio going to a rounded half of a bagel — I’m in awe.
Over the years I lose count of the number of births I watch on tape. My birds-and-bees talk is definitely accompanied by one, although not in immediate succession. Over the years, I see natural births, c-sections, water births. The first time I see a water birth I don’t fully comprehend what is happening; I don’t fully appreciate the quiet beauty in the fact that baby doesn’t really know it’s out of the womb yet, and just rests there, peacefully, until the rude but necessary awakening — when they surface to take their first breaths.
There’s power in these women who labor, so much inner strength they draw upon from somewhere deep inside even as they fight through the worst of their labor pains. They are capable, they are dripping with sweat, they often grimace and smile in tandem. And all the while, they are surrounded by their support system — their partners, their midwives, their doulas. It emboldens me to think about my mom there, fulfilling one of those vital roles, helping to welcome new life into the world.
I know bits and pieces of the story, of how she came to this. “I wanted to find something rewarding I could do part-time but still be a stay-at-home mom,” she has told me. When she found out about a local training for childbirth educators, she started the program. Six months later, she was teaching childbirth classes several times a week.
“It was 1991, and the word ‘doula’ hadn’t even been used much in this context,” she says, “although there were a handful of women supporting other women who were referred to as ‘birth coaches’ or ‘labor support companions.’”
More and more couples began asking my mother to assist them outside the context of her class, to be there for the delivery itself. That was twenty years ago, and today she’s still attending births.
The closest I come to witnessing a birth for myself is in the aftermath of one of the worst snowstorms Maryland has ever seen. The baby decides to come ahead of it, but when the sun rises in the morning there’s no hope of anyone getting out safely. The birth center is a short distance away from our house, and when we get the call my father and I trudge through the snow, shovels slung over our shoulders, to dig them all out. By the time we get there, the baby’s arrival is imminent.
We sit outside the birthing room, listening to the silence occasionally punctuated by a low groan. My mother is there, on the other side of the wall. I can’t help but hold my breath — waiting for the moment when the piercing cry of new life will break the quiet.
It’s clear once I step into the room, after everything is over, that this is a sacred place, a room where an important event has just transpired. The new mother is sweaty and exhausted, but there’s an expression of serene contentment on her face unlike anything I’ve witnessed before, save the end of all those birth videos. There’s a reddened and squishy face peeking out from the blankets that swaddle it. And there’s my mom, looking much as she always does, opening her arms to give me a hug.
My mother is mostly retired from taking on new clients, but she’d never be able to turn away one of her “repeat moms,” as she likes to call them. I ask her to tell me how many babies she’s helped deliver. “I stopped counting at 400 several years ago,” she says.
There have been hundreds, the genesis of new families. When I travel back to my hometown, we can’t run errands together without running into one of my mom’s moms. The oldest of the kids whose births she witnessed are in high school, getting ready to go to college. She was there when they were born, and yet she doesn’t see what happens to them as they live out the rest of their lives — save for those snippets, those glimpses caught in little pockets of time catching up in the produce aisle.
“You can’t share one of the most amazing moments of a parent’s life and not have a connection,” my mom tells me.
I look at my mother today and I’m filled with pride at what she does, as a woman supporting other women. She’s rejoiced with them in their triumphs, grieved with them in their losses, held their hands through pain and groaning and the depths of their exhaustion, the height of their exhilaration. And yet I look at myself and recognize that for all my knowledge and understanding, I’m not ready to have children. It’s a conscious choice, a deliberate decision. It may never be something I get to, but go around instead, taking a different route toward my future.
There is the expectation that, at some point, this is going to change for me. Even I don’t know when or if that change will occur. I’ve heard it can be something gradual — over time, you catch yourself considering the possibilities of motherhood. I’ve also heard it’s like lightning — sudden and unexpected, taking you completely by surprise. It may happen one of those ways. It may happen none of those ways.
That’s a conversation I have yet to fully have with my mom. When the subject comes up, I keep up my end with vague answers, noncommittal responses. If there’s such a thing as baby fever it’s possible I haven’t caught it yet, or perhaps someone’s just managed to hit reset on my biological clock. I can’t help but think this is an offense to her somehow — that for all the women whose hands she’s held late into the night, she has always wondered what it will be like when it’s my hand instead; when it is my forehead she dabs with a cool cloth, my back she presses fingertips into as I labor.
For now, I tell her that I’m passing the responsibility of bearing grandchildren onto my sister, who’s been the baby-crazy one since long before she met her husband. I listen to my mother recount some of her most memorable births. And sometimes I jokingly ask her if it will be possible for her to waive her client fee for me. Birth used to surround me, and perhaps it will again someday. But for the moment, it’s a small flicker, a whisper of a sense, and it’s enough.
Carly Lane is a writer based in New York City, specializing in obscure pop culture references and miscellaneous geekery. Her work has been featured on HelloGiggles, Obvi We're The Ladies, Femsplain and more. You can find her on Twitter at @equivocarly.