For I heard a cry as of a woman in labor,
anguish as of one giving birth to her first child,
the cry of the daughter of Zion gasping for breath,
stretching out her hands, saying, ”Woe is me!”
I hear her through the doors as I walk by. I can instinctively tell, by the sounds she is making that she is crossing the line between pain and suffering. I know she needs help, so I stop what I am doing and take time to respond. I step into the birth room, and when I see her my heart fills with compassion. She is whimpering and has a tight and high-pitched breathing pattern through her contractions. Her whole body (and mind) is fighting against them. Her face is distorted and clinched, her shoulders are raised high by her ears. I walk towards her. I smile calmly at her family in the room and explain to them, “I’m Joy, and I’m a birth assistant here, I’m also a doula, and I’m going to help Amy* work through her contractions.”
Amy is on the queen size bed, kneeling against the large birthing ball. I sit on the bed next to Amy and as soon as her contraction ends, I bring my face near hers and begin to speak softly to her. “Amy, I’m going to help you get through this. I’m right next to you and we’re going to do this together. Don’t be afraid, your body is doing exactly what it should be doing right now. Now, I need you to slow your breathing down, slow, slow, nice and slow.”
Amy’s breathing slows. I ask her to look at me. Amy opens her eyes, they’re frantic, darting back and forth. I get even closer to her and I place my hand on her back, firmly. Amy looks into my eyes. I tell Amy, “I want you to breathe all the way down to your baby, nice deep breaths, slow and loose. Imagine your cervix opening up nice and wide with each breath you take. Imagine each contraction is making more room for your baby.”
Amy begins to take deep, slow breaths.
“Now soften your jaw and loosen your shoulders and let your body melt onto the ball. Take a nice deep breath in and when you blow out release all your tension, blow it all out of your body, imagine all your anxiety leaving your body in one simple breath.”
Amy takes a cleansing breath, I see her chest rise and fall in one slow motion.
“Good, Amy, just like that. Just like that. On your next contraction, I’m going to help you breathe through it. Nice and low and loose.” Amy nods her head, and shuts her eyes. She softens her body against the ball and lays her head down. Her breathing now slow and easy.
I can see the next contraction is coming and Amy begins to panic, her hand shoots out in the empty space in front of her, she begins grasping at the air around her and she arches her back against the contraction. I place my hand in hers and hold it tightly and firmly. I bring my face in close and say, “Now push out the pain with your breath, use your breathing to stay right on top of the contraction. I want you to pull from all the strength deep within you and stay stronger than this contraction.”
Amy begins to blow out through the pain of the contraction.
“Now loosen your jaw and lower your voice, let the sound come from the back of your throat. Here, like this.” I begin to make a low, loose sound close to Amy’s ear for her to follow. Amy looks at me and nods her head and we begin to breathe and vocalize together. I bring Dad in close, I have him hold his wife’s other hand and sit across from her. I place my hand on Amy’s back and say, “soften here.” I then place my hand on her shoulder and say, “soften here.” Amy’s body begins to soften where I place my hand.
With my left hand on Amy’s lower back and my right hand holding hers, I begin to slowly move Amy in a rocking motion that matches her breathing. Amy’s body is now in sync with her breathing and she is riding through her contraction beautifully. I speak calmly to her and say, “Beautiful work, Amy. Perfect. That’s just the way.”
Holding Amy’s hand and moving with her, I join her in her breathing, keeping my head level with hers and my eye contact strong and tender. When the contraction passes, I remind Amy to take a deep cleansing breath and let go of all the tension.
“Now let your body sink into the ball, letting go of all your weight. Soften your face and your shoulders. Open up your hands and let your fingers go limp. Don’t think about the last contraction and don’t think about the next one. Simply close your eyes and imagine your baby boy. Each contraction is bringing him closer to your arms. Each of your breaths brings him life and strength.”
Amy ultimately had to be transferred to the hospital, however, she did have a vaginal birth, which is what we had hoped for. As the student-midwife escorted Amy out of the door she locked eyes with me and I felt her say thank you. Amy was coping beautifully now. Her breathing was low and loose and she was no longer fighting through her contractions. She had left the place of suffering in labor and was coping with the contractions peacefully, instinctively and most importantly without fear.
I’ve reflected on that afternoon for quite a while now. I was not Amy’s doula. I had not spent any time with Amy apart from the childbirth classes she had attended, but in that hour, it didn’t matter, she was a laboring woman in need of comfort.
Sometimes in those moments, I feel so … I feel wordless, empty and intimidated, but I also feel like an instrument being played by The Spirit of Comfort. I respond to promptings of something deeper and greater than what I feel I am capable of giving. It is a calling. Serving women in labor is one of the most fulfilling things I’ve experienced. I know that this calling is not mine to claim as my own, but it is a gift loaned to me by The greatest Comforter of every laboring and birthing heart.
*Name was changed for privacy.