by Liv Larson Andrews
for Patty, with love and groaning
Wendell Berry argues that only when we begin to do the necessary things for each other will we build true communities again. He means eating together and feeding each other, tending the land and making homes. Raising children. Birthing them in the first place.
Giving birth in this world should not be done alone. We recognize this at some deep level, but in the context of our highly medicalized and individualized world, we lose sight of it easily. Pregnancy can be treated as a kind of sickness, and birth a problem to be cured in a hospital. Though medicine and hospitals have helped make mothers and babies safe, they have also distanced us from our body’s own knowledge and our bodily need of one another. Gathering a loving group of other human beings around us to help us birth our children is one part of radical Christian parenting. Radical, because doing so implies the medical model is not enough. Christian, because it affirms the holiness and worth of all bodies and communities.
Patty answered the phone and shrieked for joy when we told her the news.After the peals of excitement waned, she continued in all seriousness, “I’ll come out there if you want. I’d like to be your doula.” In making that offer, she was agreeing to finagle her work schedule, hop a plane from Chicago to eastern Washington, and do everything she could to help us through the birth of our first child. Patty is a skilled nurse, a veteran of the first gulf war, a practicing Mennonite, and my dear friend. She brings calming strength and deep wisdom into all settings. She also has a lifetime of labor-and-delivery expertise and makes some kick-ass baked oatmeal. All of these traits together make her an amazing person, and the perfect doula. I was humbled by her generous desire to be mine.
Doula is the feminine form of the Greek word doulos, meaning slave or servant. It’s used all over the New Testament. Though I had tender feelings of gratitude toward Patty for being my doula, it is not a sentimental term. Being a slave is about obedience to a master, not tender gratitude. Yet, there is a special kind of obedience in being a doula, a servitude to the wondrous dance between a mother and the coming child. At times, doulas are advocates and guardians of a mother’s needs and space. Doulas of North America reports that the quality of emotional care received by a mother during labor, birth, and immediately afterwards is one vital factor that can determine the emotional ties between mother and child. Doulas comfort, encourage, and empower mothers in labor, helping mothers feel the safety and freedom to birth and nurture their children at the time of birth. They are servants of healthy births and happy mothers.
Because the nature of those early moments of bonding are so significant for building lasting relationships later in life, doulas actually serve the health of communities as a whole. With mothers more able to feel safe and present to their newborn children, stronger bonds form and a cascade of healthier outcomes follow. The positive birth outcomes linked to the use of doulas have been researched and documented, and they should not be ignored. However, the beauty of the doula’s service is not simply that she gets results. The beauty is in the act of serving itself. And that is why, as a Christian, I am excited that more and more families are using them. Bodily service, placing our physical selves in service to another person’s well being, is the ultimate Christ-like act. No, there is no gospel scene of Jesus rubbing the back of a woman in labor or bringing her ice chips. But there is the washing of feet. There is the breaking of bread and sharing of wine. There is the touching of sick people and the raising of the dead. Christ comes in loving service to other human bodies. This is the role of the doula, and the life of every baptized Christian.
Pregnancy is a lot like the church season of Advent: watch, wait, hope, prepare. I believe that raising children as Christians begins much earlier than pregnancy, and nurtures these Advent virtues. It begins when we find ourselves drawn into a loving community that can teach us about waiting, watching and hoping. Patty and her family were a big part of the loving community that taught us about Christian practices of parenting. In a way, she had been our doula all along.
Patty taught us that having a child is one way of welcoming the stranger. That idea gave us great freedom. Children are not projects or products, not markers of our success or failure. Every child is another traveler on the road, a stranger to be greeted in peace and given hospitality, a being beloved of God and full of surprises.
As it turns out, Patty is awesome when it comes to surprises, too. Many months after our joyous phone call, I waddled up to meet her at the Spokane airport. Then began the preparations of a much more practical and tangible variety: washing all the tiny one-sies and footsie pajamas that our new baby would wear, stocking the fridge with ready-to-bake lasagna, and packing a bag to take with us to the birthing center. About a week after she arrived, we popped popcorn and snuggled under blankets to watch a movie. It happened to be Godspell, that great hippie musical based on the gospel of Matthew, one I can’t get through without tears. I love the opening scene: the sound of the shofar horn blaring across New York City and John the Baptist singing “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” Just a few hours after turning off the TV and heading to bed, I awoke with intense labor pains. Prepare the way.
The day that followed was an incredible journey of hard work, surrender, and great joy. We spent most of it at a warm and cozy birthing center with two midwives. After a long day and many hours of pushing, it became clear that we needed to transfer to the hospital. I will never forget the disappointing walk out of the birthing center, my belly still very pregnant. At 11:57 p.m., our beautiful son was born by Cesarean section in a sterile but friendly hospital room. Patty never left my side. Had we been without her, without the care, love, strength and knowledge of our doula, my memories of that day would be full of pain and sadness. As it is, I still mourn the loss of the birth I had in mind, but I rejoice over the journey of that day. We made decisions with calm reserve; we were kept safe from despair and distress. We walked the road given to us, and at the end, we met Arlo John, our son.
I believe it is not an accident that the word used to describe Patty’s role in our journey is also the word that describes the disciples of Jesus. Servant. And I believe that what we shared around the event of Arlo’s birth was a glimmer of the true community hoped for by Wendell Berry. Just a glimmer, though. It’s probably not a sustainable practice to fly your doula in from hundreds of miles away. Still, Patty’s brave and loving service, her way of following Jesus, kept us from fear and welcomed new life. When we do the necessary things, when we lovingly serving one another’s bodies, we taste a redeemed future where fear is forever banished and all bodies are given love and worth. By becoming my servant, Patty obeyed the call given to her at baptism: to love and serve all creation as Christ serves us. This doula-hood is utterly sacramental: it foreshadows a community made whole by God, a people gathered around resurrection hope and new birth. And, like kick-ass baked oatmeal, it is a small taste of the reign of God.
Liv Larson Andrews pastors Salem Lutheran Church in Spokane, Washington. Arlo John runs circles around her and keeps church services lively.