I recently came across this quote by Henri Nouwen defining what it means to care.
(I actually found the quote on a blog I follow, of a really amazing and beautiful mama of four who is struggling with deadly breast cancer. I am so humbled and encouraged every time I read her words--I definitely encourage you to go read her story.)
These thoughts, so potent and true, immediately reminded me of doula work, and the beauty of both caring for women and of receiving doula care.
Nouwen starts by going back to the root of the word care:
"What is care? The word finds its origin in the word Kara, which means to lament, to mourn, to participate in suffering, to share in pain. To care is to cry out with those who are ill, confused, lonely, isolated, and forgotten, and to recognize their pains in our own heart. To care is to enter into the world of those who are broken and powerless and to establish there a fellowship of the weak. To care is to be present to those who suffer, and to stay present, even when nothing can be done to change their situation."
To "participate in suffering" and to "share in pain" is probably one of the biggest gifts you can give a laboring woman. Whenever I am attending a mom in labor, all her body language, her expressions, her movements, bring me right back to my labors, and I so vividly recall the intense and wild stretching and pressure and building and receding of labor waves. I remember and in that moment I know where she is. I match my movements to hers, my noises to hers, and encourage her partner to do the same. And in those moments, she is not alone. We are carrying her burden with her, supporting her with our presence, and entering into her world where weakness and surrender equal strength and victory. We are wholly present with her, and that simple yet deeply profound act makes all the difference in how she will remember this story.
"To Care is the most human of all human gestures. It is a gesture that comes forth from a courageous confession of our common need for one another and the grace of a compassion that binds us together with brothers and sisters like ourselves, who share with us the wonderful and painful journey of life."
The confession of need is courageous, and humbling at the same time. I know so well the look of a woman at the beginning of a contraction she knows will be strong, her eyes frantically searching for someone to support her. Usually, she finds her husband or partner, and I use my words like a map, guiding them through the unknown terrain of labor. If he happens to be away for a moment I step into an urgent embrace, and we sway and moan and make our way through the contraction together.
"In the very act of caring for another, you and I possess a great treasure. One of the great riches of caregiving is that it embraces something more than simply a focus on cure. Caregiving carries within it an opportunity for inner healing, liberation, and transformation for the one being cared for and for the one who cares. And because we who offer care and we who receive care are both strong and vulnerable, though in different ways, our coming together in a caregiving relationship is an occasion to open ourselves to receive and unexpected gift."
One of the greatest and most unique things about caring for women as a doula is that I am not a medical caregiver at all. There are doctors and nurses and midwives assigned with the task of ensuring physical health for mom and baby, which allows me the beautiful opportunity to just be; to focus on the emotional and the spiritual well-being of these vulnerable and courageous almost-mothers.
It is my greatest belief about birth that it will shape you. In the deepest, most profound ways, you will carry around your birth experience with you either as a dark and heavy burden, or as a memory of light and love and captivating beauty. Or maybe a little of both. I also believe that it is not the physical outcome of your birth, but the way you were cared for through it, that will determine how the memories of your birth will shape you. So yes, with my clients we definitely prepare for and hope for and encourage and work toward natural birth. But as a doula, my main goal is to ensure that my women are cared for and loved through whatever births they are given.
And in the giving of that care, I am on the receiving end, blessed with the gift of taking part in their stories.
*Photos taken by myself and midwife Karen. See more of this birth here.