Let me start by saying I am a wonderfully supportive husband and father. Seriously, I rock! I really do! But, part of the reason I can pat myself on the back is that I'm also not too cool to admit my limitations and get assistance when I need it. I also want to warn that this version of our birth story is going to sound really me-centered. I'm not egotistical - but this is one side of our very multi-dimensional story.
Let's back up a number of months, before Aen was born. One Wednesday evening in the middle of a thunderstorm, much like the one that is occurring as I write this, we met Cole in the vastly caffeinated realms of the Land of Starbucks. As the bittersweet smells of cafe latte swirled about our heads, and students and businessmen rubbed elbows at neighboring booths, Cole expounded on the merits of a doula for Emily and her upcoming birth. I had come armed with skepticism and my pocketbook on lock and key. I thought to myself, "there's no way in hell that I am letting this hippie stranger in her pumps and tattoos take my place at the birth".
She had been gesturing and smiling that syrupy sweet and motherly smile that doulas do; talking to Emily like old friends do. I could tell Emily really liked her... which made me like her even less. My internal dialog was not kind. There was no way I was getting pushed aside. I was going to be her doula, or so I had argued to myself already.
But then, while I was grumbling to myself silently, Cole abruptly turned her attention to me. "Ok Daddy, what questions do you have?"
I think I opened and closed my mouth 3 times, guppy-like, before finally blurting, "but what about me?" Yup, I whined like a little 5 year old being left out of t-ball. I cringed inwardly; here it comes, I thought, she's going to tell me how this is a woman's work, yada yada yada....
She smiled again, syrupy sweet and motherly again. But this time, I felt the warmth behind it and immediately I felt my assumptions start to quaver.
"This is as much your birthing journey as Emily's, and a good doula will recognize that, at the end of the day, it's not about how great I made your experience, but how great a team you, the family unit, are. Think of me like glue - making sure all the bits stick to the best of their ability. Think of me like a pocket guide, reminding you of everything you learn in childbirth class. Think of me like a personal trainer, putting your hands right in that place to make her sigh in contentment or whisper to you the words you can say to make her go the extra mile. But please don't think of me as a replacement.
"I could never replace you. You bring something to the birth I can't, no matter how hard I might try. Something that you can't learn from all of the birthing women in the world - how to be intimate in a way that only the partner can know from the relationship they share."
Yup, those wavering assumptions started to topple and, after another 20 minutes of chit chat, we left the coffee shop - our minds, hearts, and pocketbook a little lighter.
During pregnancy, she came to our house and talked to us about our fears and concerns, expectations and plans for labor, birth, and parenting. She challenged my ideals about circumcision and vaccinations, and I confided in her how my father failed me miserably and I was afraid I'd do the same, and how I was afraid I would pass out; she recommended resources and exercises to help me forgive, learn, resolve, and fortify.
And then, it happened. During another thunderstorm, we were eating dinner by candlelight when Emily paused mid-bite. She had the most curious look on her face as she stared off into a land I couldn't see. A few beats later and she was eating and chatting with me again.
A number of minutes passed before she did it again. And then again. I asked if everything was ok, and she said, 'fine'. So, I snuck off to a bedroom and called Cole. I explained what was happening and I could hear that smile in her voice as she recommended I go finish our romantic dinner and then continue to be romantic and sensual with Emily until she was ready to share what was going on her body and heart.
I did as she suggested and, later as I sat knee to knee with Emily, kissing her bare shoulders by candlelight, cradling her belly in my hands, I felt her belly tighten, and Emily went away for awhile. Her eyes glazed and she became heavy lidded. When she returned to me, she smiled and asked if I felt it. I said yes.
It was time.
I checked in with Cole intermittently, and whenever I sounded shaky on how to support Emily, she gave suggestions. They were spot on - and Emily received all of the suggestions through me. I never felt I couldn't help her, I never felt I was not a part of the process.
Soon, her travels began taking her further and further away from our room, away from my presence, and although Emily was doing extremely well with the techniques I was able to use to help her in her journey, I needed help to go there with her. So I asked Cole to come join us.
When Cole showed up, she set her things by the door and just squatted in the corner. I kept glancing at her, thinking to myself, 'ok super-doula, now's your time to shine. Why are you just sitting there? Show me that doula badassery we talked about'. It took me awhile to figure out that she was feeling the space - how we interacted and how Emily was acting. I put on my best game face and tried to do everything that I had been doing before. But, like I said, she was travelling so far away from me and I didn't know how to get where she was going.
Cole moved behind Emily and pressed on her lower back, lower than I had been, and in a certain way that I didn't intuitively know to do. She sighed and collapsed against the birth ball she was hugging. Cole gestured with her head to see what she was doing and whispered a few words into my ear. I smiled and took her place when Emily came back from that wave.
Cole went and filled a cup with our pre-mixed labor smoothie, another with ice water, and made a plate of cheese, fruit, and crackers. Between contractions, she made sure Emily was eating what she could, drinking much more, and that I ate as quick as I could, so I could be ready for the next contraction.
After we had eaten our fill, Emily mentioned she needed to use the restroom, something that, up this point, I had let her do alone. Cole, on the other hand, went ahead and lit a candle in the bathroom, came back and, holding her hands, led Emily to the toilet. I stood at the door, but Cole beckoned to me, as we passed (she on her way out of the bathroom), she reminded me quietly to help Emily intone and get 'back to that place' we were in in the bedroom.
She then closed the door to just a crack and was gone. I had a moment of panic. I had never been in the bathroom while Emily was doing her business and. I pushed that thought aside though and, although I won't share the details of that bathroom time, I can tell you that, when we emerged 40 minutes later, Emily and her labor had definitely changed, the waves more intense and pulling her more deeply into that foreign land - but I had changed too. I was able to follow her, move with her, read her body better, listen to her sounds and help her better. And when Cole joined us in the living room, she only needed to look me in the eye for me to understand it was time to go. For the most part, words were no longer needed, and when they were, it was a brief, few-word exchange.
We drove to the hospital carefully and, when we pulled up to the front, Cole opened the door and helped Emily from the car. I grabbed our stuff, Cole threw a bag over her shoulder, and we made our way slowly into the hospital. In a short time, we were through triage and into our room. I knew what we had to do this time to get recentered and reconnected, so Emily and I went into the bathroom once again. In the mean time, Cole put away our bags, took out our music and hooked it up, set up her candles, and fanned some good smelling stuff into the air, all while conveying to our nurse our wishes and asking her to wait 'just a few more minutes' before hooking Emily back onto the monitor.
When we came out from the bathroom, I walked Emily the way I had seen Cole do it, and when she had a wave, I would brace her by placing her head against my chest. Cole pressed into her back (much lower than when we had left the house). We slowly made it to the bed. Emily was hooked up to the monitors and the nurse asked to check her cervix. Emily buried her head in my arm and Cole motioned to breath out, like blowing a candle - I asked Emily to blow out a candle when she was checked. The nurse checked quickly and then removed her hand, holding up 8 fingers. 8cm. Right afterward and before another wave could start, Cole helped Emily up and she supported her while I pressed on her back.
We alternated like this a short while longer, and Emily started making some different noises and bleeding quite a bit. I looked at Cole over the top of Emily's head in shock. Cole just gave me a thumbs up and mouthed "pushing".
The very next wave and Emily's eyes shot up, meeting mine, "I'm pushing" she said, emphatically. "I know" I responded, with a smile. No panic, no need to rush things, just a matter of fact. She had a few more contractions like this before Emily asked if we should call in the nurse. We had been at the hospital for an hour and a half at this point. Cole had told us that, when mom asks if we 'should' do something it's a good indication it's a good time to do something - so I said sure.
Rather than use the call button, Cole slipped out into the hall and was back in less than a minute with the nurse. As the lights were flipped up and people started bustling in, we slowly walked Emily back to the bed. She wound up on all-fours on the bed, and I was near her head, holding her hands and encouraging her to listen to her body. Cole draped her rebozo over our heads to keep out the light and bustling, and I felt her hand on my hand, which was bracing Emily's back at that time. Her reassurance told me that we were doing everything right.
Soon, Emily was asked to turn around to birth her baby. What this meant was, they wanted her on her back, When we came out from under the rebozo, all of the lights except the spotlight had been turned off, and the spotlight was aimed near Emily's feet, not at her bottom. Emily started to turn over, and Cole encouraged me to hop up behind her. The end result was Emily leaning back against me, and me acting like an armchair and support for her.
Cole magically appeared with cool washcloths and she changed them out for Emily while Emily pushed, and brought us both cool water (holding a fully pregnant, laboring woman up in position was working up a sweat). She also fanned us both and helped me shrug out of my hoodie.
As our baby began to crown, I asked for a mirror so we could see our babies head. Emily reached down and felt for the head and the bag of water burst. Within seconds, our baby was born, right into Emily and our doctor's hands. It had happened so fast Emily didn't have time to move her hands!
She brought our baby up toward her chest and, as she lifted the baby, we were both able to see that we had a baby boy! I cried, I did! In fact, all three of us were crying. And when I looked over at Cole, she was beaming from ear to ear with a proud thumbs up.
Within an hour Emily was cleaned up and tucked in, our boy was rooting around for the breast, and Cole had snacks laid out on a tray for Emily and I. The three of us worked to get baby attached, Cole giving some tips, me taking notes and trying to help with pillows and holding a baby hand, and Emily trying to position him. After a short time, Cole took a little more active role, and she gave us both instructions on how to help ensure a good latch. After he got latched well once, she showed Emily how to take him off the breast and let Emily and I help him reattach. We had done it!
I looked at my family, the three of us, and felt such gratitude. I was proud of myself, my bride, my son, and my doula. Yes, she was my doula. She was also Emily's and Aen's - but she was my doula in so many ways that I hadn't known before.
A doula helps to fill the gap in the birthing team, helping to make sure that both of the parent's expectations are met. She helps a male birth partner to feel honored and helpful, as involved as he wants to be, and without the burden of the care being left on his shoulders. This is freeing, liberating, and encouraging!
As a result, the mother feels free, supported, encouraged, safe, and able. She can meet the challenge and overcome! She feels no doubt, worry, or fear from her partner because her partner is supported and feels safe and encouraged. This cycle of care is complete and unbroken.
A man is then able to give himself over to loving her, without worry or concern. This birthing journey becomes his journey as well - from being a lover to being a father. I felt confident in both my and Emily's roles - we were parents able to meet any challenge as a team.
As Cole tucked the three of us into bed, finished packing our things onto the cart to go to postpartum, and hugged us all tight, I remembered the modified quote that Cole told us on that fateful night in Starbucks...
“Birth is not only about making babies. Birth is about making [parents]--strong, competent, capable [parents] who trust themselves and know their inner strength.” - Barbara Katz Rothman