I vowed I would never do this again.
And yet, the words tumbled out of my mouth. At the same time both jumbled and awkward, certain and clear. Clover reflected them back to me.
“Are you saying you want to be my doula?”
“Um…yes. I guess.”
Pause. Smile. Squint. Think. Nod. Nod again, excitedly.
“Yes. Yes, I do. If you will have me.”
She stood up from her chair — her pregnant belly announcing itself to all those around us – and threw her arms around me. Both our eyes wet with tears.
Just a few months earlier, she had told me she was pregnant.
Sitting on the marble wall outside of the Sulzer Library. It was summer and we had just polished off our cups from Paciugo – sorbet for her, gelato for me. I was talking about boys. None of it new or terribly important.
And when I stopped, she was talking about babies. Specifically, her baby.
Later that night, we danced in the street to a band from West Africa. And when she was tired I walked her home, suddenly terribly protective. I called her Lil Mama – what a boy from South Carolina used to affectionately call me – and told her I would support her in any way I could.
So it shouldn’t have surprised either of us when I offered to be her doula.
Except that I am not certified as a doula. Greek for “a woman who serves.”
I am a pre-natal massage therapist and instructor. A friend. Terribly interested in the miracles our bodies engender.
And I’ve done this once before. A little more than six years ago, for my oldest and dearest friend Julie.
My then-husband and I were preparing to move from California for his medical residency. In the two months leading up to our departure, we would travel to Chicago to look for a home, and to Oklahoma for my ex-boyfriend’s wedding.
Julie asked that I consider a third trip – to Detroit, for the birth of her son. She wanted me to be her doula.
I was in an underground parking lot when I received her call.
Every fiber in my being wanted to say no. It wasn’t practical. It was expensive. I felt overwhelmed.
The words that flew out of my mouth were, “Of course.”
I arrived a few weeks later – three days before her due date, and departing four days after. It was spring. No one thought my schedule and the baby’s would sync. We gave it to the universe.
We spent our days on long walks. Visiting her mother. Talking – about everything and nothing. Like we always do.
I massaged her legs while she sat on the exam table in a flowered gown, waiting for the obstetrician. And pressed acupressure points on her hands and feet – “downward elevators” in Chinese medicine.
We ate a late breakfast following a trip to the gym – her last before becoming a mother. Julie wanted to use the elliptical machine. (She swears this is what started her labor.) She ate little of her French toast. Her stomach pushed so far up into her ribs, it left little room for food.
Around 11 p.m. that night I got the call. It was time.
I met Julie at the hospital door. Steve parked the car.
We walked the hospital floors for an hour, until she was dilated enough to be admitted.
Once in her room, we talked and laughed and napped over the next many hours. Somewhere there are photographs of me wrapped up in blankets, looking like a woman from the old country.
Her husband fed me crackers and peanut butter. I watched Julie instinctively comfort herself. She labored many hours, insisting on a vaginal birth – even though the doctor on call wanted to perform a C-section.
Thankfully, the labor nurses supported her choice.
At their urging, I held up one her legs and counted her contractions out loud until hoarse. Jaron’s head emerged. Then his shoulder. And then the rest of him – slipping out quickly like a fish.
I saw him first and looked at Julie with wet eyes, nodding. I didn’t have any words.
Jaron was placed under a heat lamp, like a Big Mac, while the doctor tended to Julie, and the nurse made notes. He looked wise, terribly nonplussed by this abrupt move from his inner world out.
“You’ve done this before,” I said.
They say babies don’t smile right away, but I am certain he did, as he reached into the air. “Playing with the angels,” Julie said, referring to the idea in mystic Judaism that babies are born so pure they can see angels. A lovely idea.
I returned to the hospital the next day. Julie was eating a cold grilled cheese and French fries – seemingly already accustomed to the realities of motherhood.
She told me I should do this work professionally. “Never,” I replied.
A few years later her niece asked me to come to New York to be her doula. I was flattered, but politely declined.
I didn’t want to be on call. Couldn’t imagine putting a price to the work. Wasn’t willing to sleep on a fold-out chair for just anyone. Just her.
I was grateful for the experience. To be invited so intimately into my friend’s life. But I had no desire to repeat it.
Until I did.
Clover had just gone public with her pregnancy on Facebook.
As we ate perhaps our last gelato and sorbet of the season, I intuitively knew that I would be there. Sleeping on a fold-out chair, eating crackers and peanut butter, a blanket wrapped around my head like a babushka. Serving the miracle.