I Can’t

On Sunday, a doula friend asked me if I could cover a birth for her. I had spent about a year away from births of all kinds: hospital, home, long, short, dramatic and mundane. I had spent all my doula-ing energy and wanted-needed a break. When my friend asked for help, I knew she needed it. But I am a selfish, spoiled person: I did not want to say yes to her.

I did not want to say yes when she asked. I did not want to say yes when she texted at 9:30 on Saturday night, saying she thought the couple might be in labor. I did not want to say yes when she called at 4:30 am and said they were on the way to the hospital. I did not want to say yes after I went home, slept for three hours and was called again to their bedside.

My bed was so warm. My husband slept so peacefully beside me. Labor was slow, I justified. They don’t need me yet. “I can’t,” I told myself. “I’m busy. I’m tired. I don’t want to go. I…I just can’t.”

But I went. Because I knew my friend needed me, and I knew this couple relied on having objective, knowledgeable help with them for the birth of their first child. By the time I walked in the room and met this delightful young couple, I had shoved aside all justifications in favor of supporting this family. Which reminds me: I love being a doula. I just wish those silly babies would figure out some kind of nine to five system, making life more convenient for mamas and doulas. But mostly for doulas.

This young couple, born in 1987, if that doesn’t make a girl feel old, had some pretty steep hills to climb. Labor was incredibly slow. She struggled through a few centimeters, but was able to, without the aid of any medication whatsoever, to reach completion. She was able to push. And push she did. For two solid hours. She had been laboring for nearly twenty fours hours by this point and when I say she was tired is to undersell the story. Her eyes rolled back, her body sagged, she cried. She said, “I can’t.”

Sometimes “I can’t” really means “I can’t.” Her baby was positioned awkwardly and engaged firmly. No amount of effort from this worn woman would bring that baby’s head under the pubic bone. She knew what she meant and she meant: “I can’t.”

Athletes and mothers are used to dealing with the “I can’ts.” When my kid’s idea of looking for her lost shoes is to say “I can’t find them,” I tell her that she has not yet begun to look. Simply declaring her inability does not equal a thorough household search. When I run with my friend Ellen and get cranky in the heat, I tell her I can’t go another stupid mile. She laughs, right in my face! And she says, “Of course you can.” She’s always right.

Even the world’s favorite little, green, wrinkly sage, Yoda, would posit that “There is no try. Only do.”

But not for this woman and this baby. She had reached to the very bottom of the pit of her seemingly endless reserves; she was done. Here is a lesson in flexibility. A lesson in grace. A lesson in letting people know and listen to their bodies, their limits, their own interior voice that sometimes is right when it says, “I can’t.” That precise edge, that horizon line between can and can’t is elusive and shifting; as a doula, as a mom, as an athlete, the primary instinct is to challenge, to push back, to encourage.

I knew that mama wanted to keep going as surely as I knew no amount of effort was going to bring her son into her arms that way. Her baby was born, and she holds him in her arms now. She is happy he is here, no matter how he arrived. The how isn’t as important as what she does now.

How do you know the difference between “I can’t” and “I just need a break?” What do you tell youself when you really can’t?