Monday morning, a bit after noon, a pink, pudgy, healthy, black-haired little dude was born in a birth center in Connecticut. He charged his way into the world like the tiny Taurus he is, and all in attendance marveled at the sight and sound of his mom and dad singing a Gershwin tune as they held their baby so close in his first moments of life. From behind my mask, perched on the edge of the tub where this trio was becoming their new family, I cried tears of relief, joy, and appreciation that I was unable to wipe away, unable to touch my face.
Three weeks earlier, I had shared with this couple that I would not be able to attend their birth. I was steeped in the deep fear phase of this pandemic, unsure how prevalent the virus was in our neck of the woods, terrified I’d get it (or give it!) just by breathing the air where someone had exhaled, worried that any exposure meant I would need to quarantine from my children for two weeks, anxious that if one of us got sick that hospitals would be too packed to treat us, and overwhelmed with concern for my in-laws who, in their cabin right through our woods, are part of our “quarantine cluster.” I was also, like many people who have experienced trauma or tremendous grief in their lives, thrust back into a time of a horrible accident, death, and mourning. Wounds are so re/open right now, grief is heavy, and emotions are raw.
The decision to attend this couple’s birth virtually versus physically was neither easy nor necessary. My instinct to stay put was completely at odds with my commitment to my clients. Further, their birth center was/is still allowing doula support with proper screening and precautions. Meaning, I could go but just couldn’t go. Thus, after agonizing over the decision, the risk of going just seemed too great.
Then slowly and unexpectedly, the virus and my fears evolved. Last week I saw a few friends from a distance for my birthday, I relaxed as I sat on a bench watching my daughter ride her horse, and I even went to the grocery store for the first time. Our mail now sits in a bag for one day instead of two, and I open packages inside instead of outside on our porch. The sun shines brightly on our house in the woods, and the moon waxes and wanes as it always has. Essentially, in our safe haven, we no longer feel in crisis. Yes, we are following the rules, and I know we have a very long road ahead. I understand that acute illness and turbulence continue in hospitals very close by, in some of which I have friends on the frontlines. I still dread getting this virus or, worse yet, spreading it. But in the words of Sir Duke, “in a sentimental mood I can see the stars come through my room,” and indeed “my heart’s a lighter thing….”
With this evolving perspective, the gloom lifting, and a lighter heart, in the last week or two, imagining leaving my home felt different. When I imagined hopping in the car to head to the birth center, I didn’t feel a pang of anxiety. I felt the familiar flutter of excitement when I consider births. So I asked my clients if we could leave this a bit open, and because they are trusting, reasonable, and wise, they said yes. We could wait and see. Jon and I talked about the risks and benefits over the last couple weeks, but not obsessively. I decided to trust that the choice would be clear when the time came.
Yesterday morning, when my phone rang at 6am, I knew someone was in labor, and before I even heard a voice, I knew I’d be packing my bag to head to a birth. I can’t really explain it, but it’s what I do. My body and mind don’t know how to do the other thing. There’s a gravitational pull toward people in labor, and for that pull I am deeply grateful. I don’t think that I’ve ever known so clearly that my calling is birth work. As my clients and I spoke by phone over the next few hours during early labor and the beginning of active labor, I also knew that while many, many people are knocking this virtual doula-ing thing out of the park, I would be terribly awkward on a computer screen. If need be, I will be phone supporting and doula video-ing for hospital births, but for this birth, I had an option. I could go. So I made sure my clients were still OK with my attending, I packed some food, my birth bag, and readied myself.
My clients and I had determined that I would not go into their home, so the plan had been that if I was to attend their birth at all, we’d be meeting at the birth center. Thus, Monday morning, we decided to wait until they were admitted for me to join them, just in case this was a quirky labor that seemed further along than it was and they were sent home from the birth center, not quite in active labor yet. But this wasn’t the case! My client, a strong, athletic first-time mom, was well on her way upon admission. She was cranking, and I sped off to join her and her husband.
This is their birth story to tell when and if and how they choose so I don’t want to share the details of their birth. But I will mention a few things that feel important to my experience. In the “super weird” column:
- I had to convince a police officer to let me pass to park at the birth center because the main entrance to the center and the adjacent hospital is blocked off for drive-through Covid-19 testing.
- I was met at the birth center door with a surgical mask but decided to keep on my own which a former client lovingly sewed for me, with room for an effective filter.
- Upon entering the birth room, I realized I hadn’t been near another human outside my cluster in nearly two months. I was struck by this.
- And weirdly awesome: the dad looked incredibly badass and cool in his gray ribbed tank and turquoise bandana-print mask. (This started to make sense as I realized that he was a completely heroic, selfless, fearless, thorough labor partner.)
And now, in the “birth is birth is birth” column:
- Within moments of being at the birth center, I forgot about contagion. Not in a bad way or a reckless way. But I was worried I’d be afraid to be close to someone, and, to the contrary, I instinctively and almost immediately leaned in close to my client’s head as it rested on some pillows, pulled her hair away from her face, and told her how beautifully she was laboring. And she really, really was. I leaned my head on her hair, adjusted her mask straps, and whispered assurances. Then I gave dad a break on the double-hip squeeze before I filled up the tub. All stunningly normal, all heart meltingly familiar, all like coming home. Even with multiple glove changes and an itchy mask.
- The thing that is so extraordinary and oddly ordinary about birth was here, even with a pandemic raging so close by: life begins anew. Of course there are baby booms and times when people put growing their families on pause, but new life is constantly being created in this crazy world we inhabit. And to see that, behold that, be a small part of that, well, I just was stunned by how very commonplace and also powerful procreation is, no matter what else is happening around us.
There was one more element of this birth that left me breathless, a new realization specific to the times we are living in. My client, this new mom, reminded me of all that is great, decent, and sustaining about human interaction. We are all distanced right now, and, sure, we hear and read amazing stories about good will, compassion, grace, and love in the news and online. But as I stood in a room with a roaring mother who treated her husband, me, her spectacular midwife, and her nurse with pure kindness; allowed us to support her with such trust; shared what she needed so clearly and graciously; and delivered her baby with such power and bravery, I believed — I believe — that we will all be OK. That we all have each other and will get through to the other side of this so long as we show up for one another, find ways to reconnect, trust our communities, and behold life when it begins again.
Sentimental indeed. But, oh birth. You dazzle me and humble me. And in the wise words of this beautiful baby boy’s eponym, you, birth, are “like a flame that lights the gloom.”
Welcome to the world Baby Ellington. (I promise we’ll get this all fixed up for you.)