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Women's Work - II

Posted Nov 03 2008 9:00pm
This picture was taken two weeks ago, around ten thirty at night. My mother had just come home from working a twelve hour shift as a doula at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. At the end of her shift, she'd had to walk down nine flights of stairs because the elevators had been temporarily shut down, then walk several blocks to her car, then drive thirty-five miles home. On a normal night, my mother is in bed with a book around nine-thirty. She was exhausted, and looked kind of askance when I started snapping pictures, but luckily for me she didn't have the energy to register an outright objection.

I wanted so badly to capture how lovely she looked. I had never seen her in scrubs before - not even during all the years she'd worked as a doula before getting cancer. She'd usually just wear loose, comfortable street clothes, and red garden clogs that were easy to wash. And I'd never seen her with a picture I.D. around her neck. The sight of her dressed this way induced in me something like shy fascination. I realized, too, that I felt nourished by the sight. It isn't that I have any special attraction to hospital uniforms, or official identification tags or anything. What was startling and great about seeing my mother this way was the strong symbolism it contained: the symbol of my mother as a worker, a person with something to give to others, and who actively engaged in giving to others - her mellow tiredness a marker of this last.

My mother began working as a doula again about a month ago. Because of her cancer, she didn't feel she could resume work as a private doula. Her energy might not be up to the requirements of being on-call every day around the clock, and the unknown status of her health down the line would make it difficult to commit to a couple giving birth in a few months' time. Bellevue's volunteer doula program was a good match. There, she can work one scheduled twelve-hour shift a week, during which time she is on-call in the hospital for any mother who would like a doula. The Bellevue Birthing Center is exclusively available to low-income patients and Medicaid recipients. Many of the patients are uninsured immigrants. About fifty percent are Chinese-speaking, forty percent Spanish-speaking, often with limited or no English.

In this environment, my mother has had to find ways of providing support that go beyond speech. Touch has always been part of doula work, whether supporting the mother's weight and helping her find different positions to labor in, or providing counter-pressure to her lower back, or giving her a foot massage using accupressure. But without spoken language, the importance of touch, and of facial expression, balloon. My mother has had to find a way of being present in her body that communicates comfort, steadiness, faith.

She has had to find a way of being present in her body.

I have always loved hearing the words my mother would speak to women in labor - words for helping them feel connected to something larger, whether their ancestors, other women across the earth, or their own deepest selves. I have long thought of her as having a gift for language, specifically for speaking thoughts with uncommon power, for finding words that can fling open windows, conjure bridges, quiet hearts. But now I find myself thinking this new challenge has led her, unexpectedly, to an even greater gift.

She has had to find a way of being present in her body.

I suppose all great gifts, all true gifts, serve ourselves as well as others. My mother has been, in the most literal sense, at odds with her body since she got cancer. When she returned to doula work, it was hardly for the purpose of moving more deeply into her physical self. I doubt whether this possibility ever entered her mind. The motivation, rather, was a desire to be useful to others, to feel herself as someone other than a patient and a sick person, to interact creatively, forge connection, send forth energy. In other words, a desire to be alive. Who knew that her work would also confer the gift of leading her deep into her corporeal self, pushing past language, past the cerebral, into the simple currency of touch and gaze and breath?
Those treasures we have when we first enter the world, and keep until we go.
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