My second child was born a week ago today, and the awe generated by that experience is still pouring out of me. Awe from seeing my wife transform during a heroic 27 hour labor. From holding my daughter in the very first seconds of her life. From watching her these past days and nights as she begins to reveal herself to a curious world. Yet as I reflect on the birth, and perhaps seek new insights for parenting now that I have two children, something that was only in the corner of my eye during the labor keeps coming to mind.
We had chosen to give birth with midwives, at a birth center rather than a hospital, and had been preparing ourselves by reading about midwifery and the birthing process in different times and cultures. Just before my wife went into labor I had read a passage by Whapio Diane Bartlett that spoke beautifully of how a midwife guides labor. She describes a midwife sitting in the corner of the birthing room as the mom labors, watching and knitting. She was extremely present, setting a tone of calm and experience, ready to jump in instantly if things took a concerning turn, ready to coach or offer an encouraging word when one seemed needed. Yet if the laboring mother was doing well, the midwife would carefully avoid doing anything that might draw her out of the extraordinary inner journey she was on. The midwife would continue calmly observing and knitting a cap to give the newborn, aware of the sequence of things, wise to the ways of labor, knowing it would soon be time to lean in and coach more actively.
Barely a day after reading this I found myself sitting in just such a birthing room, with just such a midwife sitting in the corner. It was a team of two midwives in fact, one always in the room with us. As they sat with us, a few feet from the bed where my wife labored, they exuded warmth, experience, and safety, without saying much at all, never intruding on the experience my wife was having. I noticed how carefully they observed us while limiting eye contact, how their eyes were often elsewhere in the room but their presence was clearly felt. How extraordinary that they could speak perhaps only 2% of the time, and yet without them, we would have been scared and unsure of how to navigate this experience.
The midwives spoke up when it was time to try a different labor position, or to make sure that my wife had enough water and food (we were also helped here by a wonderful doula). I knew they were listening carefully to the sounds my wife was making, and if they sensed too much strain or fear, they would calmly suggest she relax her jaw and shoulders. When it came time for the active "pushing" stage, the midwives leaned in closer, knowing this was the time for more active coaching. Still they chose their words carefully; a reminder to rest in between pushes, to take deep breaths, an encouragement as to how close the baby was to emerging.
I'm sure that nearly anyone who has had this experience has come to a similar conclusion: midwifery holds a beautiful metaphor for parenting. Since witnessing the labor, I have felt myself in the corner patiently observing, holding space, generating safety, watching for the moment to coach but trying not to intrude, as I parent one strong-willed five year old and now a newborn as well. To be sure, I still see myself as a very active parent, and I love suggesting family adventures for us to go on. Yet as I feel my own parenting evolve, I'm aware of the feeling of "waiting" defining more of it. I know my power is limited as a parent; I can shape my child's environment and I can work on myself, but I have very limited power to make them into any particular kind of adult. I'm beginning to understand that parenting is a very active form of waiting. Waiting to see who is emerging in front of you. Waiting for the right moment to intervene or encourage. Waiting to see how we are also transformed in this journey.
With special thanks to the midwives at the San Francisco Birth Center, to our doula Molly Escobar, and to our birthing teacher Rachel Yellin.