Friday, August 1, 2008

Birth (and other miracles)

Stock photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Yesterday I received a completely unexpected phone call from a woman I barely know (well, she's been to my home twice, but if you know what my parties are like, you'd understand!). She said that another one of my friends (someone who knows me too well!) had told her that I am a doula. Well! Some history is needed to explain...

Once upon a time, when I was an obstetrical social worker at the University of Chicago Hospitals (covering the prenatal clinic, the antenatal inpatient unit, Labor and Delivery, and the postpartum unit), I developed close relationships with many of my clients, all of whom were beset with multiple social problems (all were coping with poverty, lack of medical insurance, and high risk pregnancies). Some of my clients from the prenatal clinic began to ask me to accompany them at their births. Having never had a child (yet!) and never seen one born, I felt really unqualified to venture into Labor and Delivery with them, so I took a basic course to become a midwife's assistant (or doula). I happened to live four blocks from the hospital, and my work required me to carry a pager, so it was easy for me to hop over to the hospital when one of them called. In this way, I was deeply honored to be present at several births (I've forgotten how many now, but my guess is fewer than twenty). Each one of these births was singular and extraordinary. One of my clients was a blind single mother who needed me to be her eyes in the delivery room. Two women wanted to give their babies up for adoption and didn't want to see their babies, or even hear about them; so I came as "guard dog." A few had used drugs during their pregnancies and were terrified lest their children be born with deformities; they wanted me there to receive "the bad news" first for them and help them to cope with it. Several were teen mothers whose own mothers were so furious with them that they refused to come to the births, so I had to step in as temporary Mama.

How can I describe what it is like to be present at a birth? Perhaps there is nothing else quite so thrilling and beautiful and wonder-inducing as witnessing this extraordinary miracle: first there is just the mother, alone, and then there is another, complete human being suddenly with her. I would almost always cry (as I certainly did for all my own births!). Because a human being, when you first meet him or her, is never what you expect, is always more than you could have ever imagined. And the knowledge that the trajectory of an entire life is beginning, at this very moment, is holy. There is no other way to describe birth but with the world "holy." As Catholics we have a similar experience at each Mass, the the moment when a scrap of bread gives birth to the Son of God. Birth is the foreshadowing of Baptism, which is a greater birth (yep, I always cry at Baptisms, too!).

So, I received this call yesterday from my new friend, Chandra, who had spoken to the only person who could have divulged my secret past. Chandra told me that when she was at Mass, she saw another friend who is nine months pregnant (a week past her due date). The pregnant friend looked really troubled, so she approached her to ask what was wrong. There had been a miscommunication with her doctor, and what he'd said had really frightened her. Chandra wanted to know whether I (as a doula!) would come with her to meet her pregnant friend and her husband, to help them to make sense of what the doctor had said. Can such a summons be anything other than the announcement of the Angel Gabriel for us? Of course I said yes! This meeting was very fruitful, and at a certain point I was made to understand that everyone in the room wanted me to speak with the doctor on the telephone! This conversation went very well (he is a very sweet man), and I was able to clarify several points with him -- and this was very helpful to the parents. Now it seems as though they would like me to be present during her labor! Part of me hopes that they would prefer to have Chandra (who has quite a bit of experience herself, having begun training as a lay midwife several years ago), so that I can be present for my own children, but my girls have assured me that they think I should go, and the older ones have promised to help the younger ones in my absence. This is a side of their mother they hadn't known about! Of course, if the parents ask me, I'll be there -- trembling, honored, madly in love with the mystery of birth -- how could I refuse?

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Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."