It was my third birth as a doula.
I focused completely on the mother. At 8 cm dilated, she moved, swayed, and surrendered to the powerful energy of transition. Determined to have a successful VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean), my client committed herself to the flow of natural labor. It had been a long haul. After being with her for over 24 hours, I was tired.
"My wife needs an epidural," her husband announced to a nurse in the hallway. I hadn't noticed that he had left the room. Suddenly, medical personnel surrounded my client. They prepared to give her an epidural that she never asked to receive.
"You need it honey, you are in too much pain," her husband spoke with tears pouring down his cheeks.
Then it hit me.
I had been so focused on my client, so devoted to her process, that I had not turned my attention to her husband. Why had I not noted his tears? All of my emotional energy was directed towards her. I had failed to register his distress as he watched his wife go through a natural, painful, and powerful labor.
"I don't need it. I'm doing alright," she quietly responded to the hustle around her while regrouping between contractions. Then she needed all her strength to move through another round of the powerful intensity coursing through her body. He pleaded with her again, and again. Eventually, she agreed.
The epidural was administered quickly. As a new doula, I stood wide-eyed feeling helplessness. She had agreed to this. How to respond? Was she trying to ease her husband's suffering? Would the epidural derail her attempt at a VBAC? I worried. At one point, the OB and I caught each other's eyes and I could see the doctor's doubt. A window opened. Words spoken at that time could have stopped the chain of events. But I didn't speak. Neither did the OB.
The epidural significantly slowed the contractions and they never picked up. After reaching 10 cm dilation, my client earnestly pushed for three hours with little sensation or success. Soon she was wheeled into the OR.
Forty-five minutes later, a beautiful baby girl was born via cesarean section.
The baby was whisked away to the nursery. I watched the doctors sew up my client's uterus and abdomen. Once settled in the post-partum room, the mother dearly wanted to hold her newborn daughter to her breast.
"You are too exhausted," the doctor said.
So, a naked infant girl wailed alone in the nursery as busy nurses entered required data under the glare of computer screens. I stayed with the mother until she fell asleep. Later, I cried on my way home from the hospital.
I learned a great deal from this birth.
Now, during prenatal meetings, I relay this story without mentioning names or identifying details. This allows me to talk openly about the feelings that may arise while watching a beloved one give birth. I now understand how vital it is to nurture both the woman and her birth partner as they prepare for the unexpected emotional energy that can emerge in pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding.
It's also vital to understand the difference between pain and suffering. Pain is what the body feels at key points in labor. Nature's wisdom is to provide periods of rest between the waves of contractions, nevertheless the pain ---or at least the strong sensations--- of labor is real. Suffering is what the mind does with pain. What stories do we tell ourselves about pain? To paraphrase a famous Buddhist teaching, in birth ---as in life--- pain is a given but suffering is optional.
A mother instinctively knows a great deal about birthing, nursing, and the vital importance of those first hours of bonding with her newborn. Combining intuition with the best research available on effective comfort measures for labor, breastfeeding, and the importance of mother-child attachment is essential for the health of any culture.
It is the mother's right to make informed and intuitive decisions guided by her wise energy within and it is the responsibility of a birthing woman's support team to create an open and loving space that allows the mother to work with her intuitive energies.
If our own suffering arises while watching a birthing woman work through the pain of labor, we must not to project this onto her. Our task is to encourage her to trust her inner strength.