Disclaimer: Doulas do not, under most circumstances, catch a baby. I say this to dispel any misunderstanding that a doula is “like a midwife”, and because I myself am now a doula and cannot overstate this enough for the sake of clarity.
I was seven months pregnant with my second child when my husband, Brandon, deployed. As an active duty Navy family, we knew it was inevitable. We were stationed at NAS Oceana, Virginia Beach, VA at the time, and the ship his squadron was attached to – the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, was scheduled for a nine-month deployment (which ended up being a year, with a two-month long break for maintenance). It was the toughest year of my life physically, emotionally, and mentally.
Because we had nearly six months to prepare for this baby before Brandon left, we made the most of our time. We hired a doula, knowing that he would be gone and that I did not have family close by to support me through labor. We attended our doula’s childbirth class, and decided to have this baby at one of the area’s highly rated midwifery centers. My goal was to labor as naturally as I could, so that I could move around and deal with labor in my own way. The midwifery center even had bath tubs to labor in! Even if Brandon could not be there, I was excited about the prospect of having these comfort measures (the doula, the tub) available to me.
As the weeks went by, the size of my stomach swelled. My two-year-old son, Alex, and I had settled into a nice routine after Brandon had left. The childbirth class I took came to an end, and I started to seriously plan for this birth: packing my bag, making sure Alex had somewhere to go during the night or day when birth was imminent, and staying in touch with my doula.
Around 37 weeks gestation, I started feeling contractions that were somewhat time-able in the middle of the night. They would be strong enough so that I could not fall into a deep sleep, but would dissipate by the time morning came. I asked my doula for advice, and this is when I learned I was experiencing prodromal labor, which is also known as “false” or “pre” labor. I was somewhat discouraged when these sensations never led to anything, but my doula reassured me that these practice contractions were doing important things in my body in preparation for the big day. I experienced this almost every night in varying degrees for two weeks.
This is the face of a lady who is so over it.
I was 39 weeks pregnant when I finally went into labor. However, due to the aforementioned prodromal labor, I was in denial the entire time. I was not in pain at all during the day, I just felt weird and uncomfortable. Alex and I went to Target in the afternoon, I drank a Starbucks Frappuccino, and blamed my jitteriness on that. Around Alex’s 8:00 p.m. bedtime, my contractions started to pick up, as they had been for the past two weeks. I proceeded to go through my nightly routine of picking up the house downstairs, and bouncing on my birth ball while watching “Arrested Development”. The humor of the show usually took my mind off of the contractions. However, this time it did not.
I texted my doula that I was having contractions that were roughly 10 minutes apart and 30-45 seconds in duration. Nothing to write home about! She had been so patient with me these last few weeks, and that night was no exception. She reminded me that she was in the Outer Banks roughly an hour and a half away, but if I felt I needed her to please let her know so she could be on her way quickly. I was hesitant to say it was the “real deal” since both my doula and my in-laws (from Pennsylvania) would be driving from hours away. I would have hated to call the cavalry for a false alarm!
I was not keen on timing the contractions, but I did realize they were coming a bit stronger. I wanted to try and finish my normal routine, however, and since watching one of my favorite shows was out the door, I attempted to move onto the last thing I usually did before getting ready for bed: emailing Brandon. I think this is when I realized I could not deny it any further. My usual lengthy, detailed email was replaced by something along the lines of: “Hey sweetie, I think I am in labor (for real this time), please call me as soon as you can.” I then called my parents and had to pause a couple of times during our short chat. My mom told me to call my doula and in-laws immediately! This was close to midnight. The next few hours were a total blur.
I was totally calm as I let my doula and in-laws know it was time to come. I cannot remember exactly what I did while waiting the 1.5 hours for my doula to arrive. If I recall, I believe I walked laps around the house. Eventually, I started feeling incredible pressure and a contraction whenever I stood up, so I sat down on the couch. My doula knocked on the door at roughly 1:30. At this time, as soon as I stood up to answer the door, I felt a contraction and the pressure, but was still able to simply breathe through it. She sat down on the floor and pulled her phone out to time my contractions and gauge where I was in labor. She knew from our previous meetings that I was not huge on touch as a comfort measure, so she kept her distance while we exchanged pleasantries. I noticed her yawn, so I stood up to make her coffee between contractions. However, as I stood up, the contractions came closer together with more intensity, so she ended up finishing the coffee preparation for me.
It was around 3:00 a.m., and because my contractions were 4-5 minutes apart at this point (and the midwifery center 40 minutes away), I decided to call the on-call midwife in order to see if I could come in. At the time, this group of midwives’ protocol was to listen to the laboring mother during a contraction to see how far along she is. I guess I labored quite deceptively, because the midwife told me to stay home for another hour or so, take a shower, then come in. I hung up the phone (quite peeved, admittedly) and told my doula we should probably head in anyway. I did not want to take a shower since it was located upstairs where Alex was sleeping, and at this point I was vocalizing pretty loudly through contractions.
My doula suggested I drape myself over my birth ball while she started to pack the car with my birth bag, and wake the neighbor up to watch Alex. I believe she was able to make one trip out to the car when I started to make the unmistakable grunting sound of pushing. I screamed “I don’t want to do this!” while grabbing onto her arms. Suddenly, my water broke and I looked at her shocked, saying “my water broke!”. Neither one of us could believe it. I felt my daughter’s head start to crown, and as I hurriedly pulled my basketball shorts down, my loving doula confirmed it with one glance. I yelled “call 9-1-1!” She reassured me: “you are doing this, everything will be okay, and I am on the phone with 9-1-1.” Not long after she started talking to the operator, she helped deliver my daughter, Hannah, while I was lying up against the loveseat in my living room at 3:52a.m., or about 20 minutes after I ended the phone call with my midwife.
By some sort of miracle, a few minutes later, Brandon called from the ship and was able to talk to me and hear Hannah’s first cries. It took roughly ten minutes for the paramedics to arrive in order to transport me and Hannah to a nearby hospital. My doula arranged for Alex’s care, and followed me to the hospital. Due to the speedy nature of her birth, the medical team took Hannah to the nursery for a while in order to observe her. I will never forget the empty and shocked feeling I had inside, and I would have felt so alone had it not been for my amazing doula. She is what inspired me to pursue birth work and serve military families closely during the unpredictable time of pregnancy, childbirth, and beyond. She cared for me and my family, took lots of pictures, and not to mention, delivered my baby due to the circumstances (I cannot reiterate enough that this is NOT at ALL typical for a client-doula relationship—doulas do not perform medical procedures or deliver babies). She could not replace Brandon, but she was an integral part of my support system.
Luckily, Brandon was able to come home for a few weeks when Hannah was two weeks old. We were so grateful as a military family that his squadron afforded us this opportunity when so many others are not able to be with family so shortly after a birth.
That was 5 years ago, as hard as it is to believe. I am still amazed at how I was able to get through a year of so many changes without Brandon being a constant presence. Parenting is hard enough without having to do it alone, and away from family. That is why I am constantly in awe of the strength I witness as a Stars and Stripes Doula, supporting families who go through the same struggles we have gone through as a military family. It further instills my belief that “it takes a village”, and many times the village is assembled by military members, and that we are much like family as any blood relatives would be.
Written by: Justine Robinson, Doula – Stars and Stripes Doulas of Washington DC