Birth, breath, and death

Birth, breath, and death

Doulas are called to care, to encourage, and to leave the world better than we found it.

illustration of a pregnant women in front of green leaves on a red background
© 2013 Amy Wright Glenn


When she was six months pregnant, my younger sister Rachel faced a painful marital separation. It proved too much for her to bear alone. She needed calm, security, friendship, and loving support. So did her soon-to-be-born daughter. My husband Clark and I opened our home and welcomed her with joy. She lived with us during the final trimester of her pregnancy, the birth, and the postpartum recovery.

Before she arrived, she called me. “Amy, will you be my birth partner?” she asked. I said yes. It was an answer that would change my life.

I projected confidence, yet inside I felt nervous, hesitant, and out of place. I knew next to nothing about childbirth. How could I support her through this rite of passage into motherhood?

While checking out a few books on birthing, I shared these fears with the librarian. “Have you considered hiring a doula?” she inquired. I had never heard this word before. I was grateful that she took a break from her work to educate me about the services that doulas provide birthing women.

The word “doula” comes from a Greek term meaning “woman servant.” Today, doulas master the art of providing skilled comfort measures to ease the pain of birth. They lovingly aid and attend to women in labor. Doulas stand at the doorway of life. They support birthing women as they transform into open vessels. Although the aim of midwives or an obstetric medical team is to safeguard the health of the mother and the child, a doula focuses on the mother. A doula mothers the mother.

I wanted to hire a doula for Rachel. Later that afternoon, I met up with her and enthusiastically shared my new discovery.

She laughed and said, “Amy, I don’t need a doula. I have you!”

I paused. “Well, I need a doula.”

So she humored me. We hired a doula. Rachel’s midwife fully supported us in bringing a doula on board. We found a wonderful woman, full of passion for her work. As a former opera singer, she sang like an angel. Her calming, beautiful melodies brought a great deal of peace to the early hours of labor.

When Rachel knocked on our bedroom door at 5:30 on a late March morning, I bolted upright. My beloved niece was soon to be born. Knowing our doula would arrive at our request brought tremendous relief and calmed any lingering trepidation. I wouldn’t be alone in supporting Rachel through the trials ahead. Our doula joined us for the vast majority of Rachel’s twenty-four-hour labor. Her helpful, kind, and informed presence proved invaluable.

Rachel quickly morphed into the bravest person I knew. Wonder and pain mixed into a strong elixir coursing through my sister’s beautiful body. We spent hours walking through the springtime fields behind our home. She labored in the upstairs tub as water washed over her rhythmic contractions. At the hospital, she moaned and rocked and said she felt agonizing pressure. She cried and bled. I massaged her body as she mercifully rested during the five-minute respites between contractions. These respites are nature’s wise gift to birthing women.

At one point as Rachel rested between pushing, our midwife turned to me and said, “You’d be a good doula.” Her words fell into the fertile soil of soon-to-manifest dreams.

Then Rachel’s cervix opened fully and the downward pressure compelled action.

While pushing, she compressed every bone in my hand. I didn’t dare say anything given what was happening to her vagina. The baby crowned. Then, with a hearty push, new life slipped out of Rachel’s watery, warm womb. A threshold opened, and my sister gave birth.

The energy in the room shifted with celebratory grace and tearful smiles. We welcomed this precious one to the earthly realm of gravity, air, and land. Rachel’s body handled the birth beautifully. She remained conscious, informed, and connected to the process even in the most difficult moments. Birth brings powerful and painful sensations to the most intimate spaces of the female body. My sister opened to this reality. I stood transfixed by the life-giving strength found in her feminine power. I certainly held a newfound respect for the vagina.

“A woman’s body knows what to do,” our midwife stated in the most matter-of-fact way.

Aztec elders taught that women who died in childbirth go to the same level of paradise as men who died in battle. After attending over forty births, I fully understood why. Soldiers die in battle from intense wounds. They bleed as they sacrifice for a greater cause. The same holds true for women who die in childbirth. They bleed as they open to life. The juxtaposition of beauty and pain in each birth astounds me. Each story lives in me. Following Rachel’s birth experience, I devoted myself to doula training.

Whether I’m teaching prenatal yoga to a Muslim mother pregnant with twins or closing my eyes in prayer as African-American Baptists petition the Lord for support during a difficult labor, the purpose of doula work inspires me to reflect upon the root of all ethical systems. Doulas offer a counterbalance to a medical system that places an inordinate amount of value on gadgets, medicine, and machines. Helpful and often life¬saving equipment need not eclipse the power of compassion.

Doulas are called to care, to encourage, and to leave the world better than we found it. Why not start where the world for each of us began? Why not begin with birth? Let us draw strength from birthing women who embody the goddess in her glory. Let us engage with our passions and birth our dreams. Let us meditate on the miracle of our own births. Let us honor the women who, through their very bodies, bestowed on us the gifts of life and life’s companion gift, the mystery of death.

This article appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of UU World (pages 14-15). This essay is excerpted with permission from Birth, Breath, & Death: Meditations on Motherhood, Chaplaincy, and Life as a Doula, © 2013 Amy Wright Glenn. Illustration (above) © Daniel Nevins/

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