About six weeks ago, one of my dearest friends gave birth to her first child, a son. I had the honor and the responsibility of attending her birth as her doula, as well as her midwife’s assistant. I also had the joy and difficulty of attending her birth — and ongoing postpartum period — as her friend.
I will remember her birth for the rest of our lives. The beauty, the triumph, the perfect moment that she and her husband met their precious boy and became a family of three. Her determination, her strength, her reserves. The magnitude of being present for such a sacred and holy experience. It was a deep honor; it was an incredible joy. I will always cherish the memory fondly.
But it was hard. It was hard to see my sweet friend in pain. It was hard to see her be in labor for so long. It was hard to realize we may have had to transfer her to the hospital due to exhaustion and lack of progress. Thankfully she did get over the hump (aka 5cm in this case) and did birth successfully at home as she desired! But there were tears streaming down my cheeks when we discussed the option of transferring with her. I wasn’t crying because there is anything wrong with going to the hospital — there isn’t. Rather I was crying because it broke my heart to see her deeply-desired homebirth seemingly slipping away from her. I was crying because it’s just plain unfair when a woman has been in labor for over 48 hours and then requires hospital intervention — and it feels royally unfair when that woman is like a sister to you. I was crying because many women who plan homebirths but ultimately transfer to the hospital during labor end up feeling like their bodies are broken, or that they are failures. THIS IS A LIE FROM THE PIT OF HELL, but nonetheless, many mamas who transfer struggle with these feelings during the already challenging postpartum period. It made me ache to think of my friend having those debilitating feelings.
It was hard because I couldn’t just be her doula. It wasn’t as though I could stop being her friend for those hours she was in labor. So when we “made her” (with her consent) do crazy things that gave her monstrously painful — and greatly effective — contractions, I felt like a meanie. I knew that I was actually helping her to be DONE faster, and therefore by increasing her pain I was decreasing its ultimate duration. But that doesn’t mean I liked it. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t vividly recall my own trying labor less than 6 months ago. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t know how much it sucked for her when we made her labor on her back with a towel under her sits bones, or squatting against a wall with us lifting up on her belly, or even upside down on the stairs. (Seriously, please click on the links so you can see that these things are legitimate techniques for moving along a labor. I promise I do not delight in torturing laboring women. And I further promise that my friend gave her consent for each of these techniques and when she said “Stop,” we stopped!). All that to say, it hurt me to watch her hurt, and to be involved in causing her to hurt. It’s probably true that my own hurt , and my own bodily memory of labor, allowed me to be a more compassionate doula for my friend, and while I am grateful for that, it still took a disturbing toll on me to labor with her. I understand so much better now what it’s got to be like to be for dads/husbands/partners in labor. To watch the love of your life be in pain for an extended period of time, and to largely be helpless to stop it. Obviously my friend is not my wife, and I’m sure my experience of her pain was not as piercing to my soul as it was to her husband’s, but it’s the closest comparison I can know until my sister or daughter labors to deliver a child into this world. I have new-found respect for my own dear husband, who was my rock during labor despite how agonizing it must have been for him to bear the experience of my experience (does that make any sense?). You just want so badly to take it away. You just yearn so incredibly for labor to be kind and for birth to be quick. You just ache so desperately to get her “to the other side.”
But then you get to the other side. Postpartum mama instead of pregnant woman. Newborn baby instead of mysterious rib-jabbing belly-dweller. And it ain’t no picnic.
As I have blogged about in past entries (and will surely blog about in future entries), the postpartum period is a very challenging time. It is truly another kind of labor. Same story, second verse. You don’t have contractions every two minutes, but you’re nursing a baby (who may not “get it”) every two hours (or more). You’re no longer growing anything in your uterus, but your body is still very much responsible for nourishing a life, which feels simultaneously amazing and exhausting. You’re not getting up to pee all night, but you are getting up to diaper, nurse, and soothe your baby. The 3rd trimester is over, but the 4th trimester is just beginning. Yes, I’d call that more labor.
My friend’s experience has not been an exception. It’s been hard. It IS hard. It will be hard. She’s in the thick of it. But I’m not here to tell her story; that’s her right to choose when and how and with whom to share it. (I’ll just say that it is a beautiful and still developing story of power, strength, love, and incredible determination, from her first contraction to her nursing journey! I am in awe of her!). I’m here to relay my experience of supporting my friend.
It was so hard to leave my friend’s home after her birth. It was pushing 2AM, and I wanted nothing more than to sleep, but because I knew all too well the difficulties she had ahead of her, it pained me to go. It was clear to me during her immediate postpartum hours that breastfeeding was not going to happen easily. As desperately as I wanted to help her get her baby latched on, it was really emotionally difficult for me to remain in that space for extended periods of time. So I’d help for a few minutes, and then busy myself with anything else: charting, deflating the birth pool, fetching a frozen pad, taking vitals, checking on dad, helping mom use the bathroom, etc. Anything else. Anything but helping with nursing. It just ripped at the threads of my soul. I just KNEW and felt and tasted and remembered and ached over the long-suffering sometimes demanded in the establishment of nursing. The feelings of inadequacy. The immense frustration over a hungry baby who will not eat at 3AM. The actual or perceived pressure from others to get it right or give it up. The rising blood pressure and the plummeting self-esteem…
In that moment, it didn’t matter that I was her doula. I was thinking like the worried friend instead of the helpful support person, and I was emotional and sleep-deprived. And honestly, I’ve been more her worried friend than her helpful doula for the majority of her postpartum period. For the most part, I don’t think this has made me a poor doula. I’ve been very available to my friend, by way of calling, texting, and visiting; in fact I’ve been much more available to her than I am for typical doula clients. Granted, she has had a number of challenges and “bad breaks” that she has needed help with, but if she was simply my client, I would have visited her 2, maybe 3 times, tried my best to call a few times, and texted her a bunch of ideas/resources to supplement the care I was able to provide. I would not have dropped by at 8am on a Sunday morning after receiving a weepy 3am text about a nursing crisis — a text which caused to me to start crying and literally drop to my knees in prayer, I might add. I would not have answered her calls and talked for 20+ minutes when I was spending time with other friends. I would not have done her grocery shopping, and provided three meals, and pumped my own breastmilk for her baby several times when needed. I’m not trying to toot my own horn or say that I’m an amazing friend. I try to be a good friend, yes, but none of this was about proving myself as a friend. It was about nearly uncontrollable concern for my friend, some warranted, some not. It was about wanting to protect her. It was about wanting to shield her. It was about not having the healthiest boundaries and maybe doing TOO much!
Her baby is coming up on 6 weeks now, and she has come such a long way. I’m so proud of her! She has overcome so much. But I knew she would come a long way. All moms do! (As a friend of mine said of having a newborn, “Surviving IS thriving!”) I look at her journey thus far and clearly see her success. I look at MY journey as the fretful friend and wonder if I too have been successful. Did I push her too hard to do things the way I did? (Or the way I wish I’d done them?) Was I available enough or too much? Did I support her as best I could while also letting her “come into her own?” Did I give her unrealistic expectations about this whole baby thing? Did I both hold her up and allow her to fall and thereby grow? Did I take care of myself and my family while pouring so much of my energy into taking care of her and hers? I don’t really have answers for these questions. Perhaps asking them is what’s most important. All I can be sure of is that being “the friend” is a lot harder than I had banked on — you just care MORE and that makes everything more complicated. Thankfully, as all the craziness gives way to a new breed of normal for my friend, she and I are both left with the same sweet reward: a traveling companion who has seen it all, felt it all…and is still by your side.