When a client calls in the middle of the night, I check my bag one last time, fill an extra-large thermos with coffee, grab her file, and leave.
I may leave a partner, sleeping warm and peaceful in our bed. I may leave a baby who still cries for me at least twice a night, or an older child or four, who will wake up in the morning with dreams to tell me or plans for fun they want to have with me, and instead find me gone for no one knows how long.
I will spend hours not eating, not sleeping, not going to the bathroom. My feet will hurt from walking, my hands and arms will be sore from hard rubbing and squeezing, my shoulders will ache from supporting the weight of someone 20% heavier than she usually is, my back will be twisted from getting into strange positions to hold her. When I am finished, I will be so tired that nothing around me seems real, but no matter how long it’s been, I won’t be able to sleep until my brain and body let go of the adrenaline, the emotion, the empathic rush of hormones.
Why do it, then?
For months now I have been invested in this labor, this birth, this woman and all of the hopes, fears, vulnerabilities she has shared with me and carried into the labor that she has dreamed of for so long. Whether she gets everything she hoped for from this experience or whether it ends in sobs as she is escorted to the operating room; whether she is treated with kindness and respect or bullied, mocked, and lied to; I walk with her through the entire experience. She will carry this day with her for the rest of her life as something that built her up or tore her down. My presence can help create the space for her to ask her burning questions, to refuse what her gut resists, and to feel that in her darkest moments someone was there who stood with her in the shadows, without fear or judgment or agenda.
This is the most sacred work I know. In the hours of labor, a woman is at her most vulnerable, her most fearful, her most broken, even as she is at her strongest, her most courageous, her most purposeful. My job is to hold her throughout that experience, sometimes physically, always emotionally and psychologically. In the moment when her spirit is broken by the anguished cry, “I can’t DO this!” I see raw terror and raw power in equal measure as her partner and I tell her, “Yes, you can—you already ARE.” And I watch as, in the final struggle to get her baby out into the world, she gathers the shattered pieces of the self she gave up and rebuilds them into someone stronger and more ferociously capable than she ever knew she could be.
Whatever her birth looks like, whatever dreams she gave up along its path (and we all give up dreams in labor), this is both an end and a beginning.
This is the life.