Like Jennifer, I’ve worked for decades in the service industry. I worked as a nightshift labor and delivery nurse for ten years followed by another ten years on day shift. Like waitressing, you never know who your next customer, AKA patient, will be. It’s a crap shoot and among the biggest challenges of the job. You take care of whomever you’re assigned to care for, whoever walks in the door and with whatever doctor or midwife is on duty for that patient. Our job, whether we like our patient or not, is to serve, guide and shepherd them through their labors and births, but it’s not isolated to serving just the patient. Nurses also serve their family, friends and baby, their doctor or midwife, and the other nurses and staff members who are part of the maternity unit.
Over all those years and thousands of patients, I’m grateful most patients were lovely and I thank them for allowing me the honor of being at their births. I’m humbled at how accepting they were of receiving my care and mindful that the work we did together was intimate, difficult and sometimes life threatening. I thank them for their trust. I’m thankful to the mothers who reached for my hand, asked for my help, took my suggestions and eventually allowed me to rock their babies so they could get some much needed sleep. I’m grateful to the fathers who tended to their wives or girlfriends with such tenderness that they taught me how these mothers needed to be cared for. Thank you to all the grandmothers-to-be who stroked brows, sang songs, rubbed backs, reassured and mothered their daughters through their labors. You taught me that mothering never ends and in fact it grows stronger as we help deliver the next generation.
Some patients, or more often their family members, were by any definition, horrible – violent, criminal, addicted, filthy and sometimes even obscene. To them I say, “Thank you for teaching me that all people deserve care, compassion and respect; that there’s always a point of connection and that no matter what their life was like in the past, almost all still love their children, even when they can’t care for them. Thank you to the patients who called me “bitch” and to those who called me “doctor.” Neither label was accurate but I thank them for making an attempt to reach me on whatever level they could.
Thank you to the patient who tried to bite me when I could not give her an epidural. When a moment later, your daughter was born and you lay cooing at her in your arms, you taught me that pain is more powerful than civility, but when the pain is gone, humanity returns. Thank you to the man who threatened his wife and me with a beating we both “deserved,” if we didn’t hand over his son before police could arrest him for child abuse. He taught me that despite his violence, hostility and demand for control, his love for his baby was overpowering and unreasonable, but it was still love.
Most of the dozens and dozens of doctors and midwives and nurses I worked with were among the best people I’ve ever met and many I count as my friends. I thank them inspiring and motivating me, comforting and supporting me, for joking around and bringing snacks and sharing their stories through 12-hour nights. I thank them most of all for having my back and always being one call away when a birth turned into a crisis. A few of my coworkers were bitter and angry, lazy and misguided and I thank them for teaching me that our work demands excellence, compassion and a higher standard.
Thank you to the mothers who faced their births with tears and screaming and the ones who managed each contraction in absolute silence. Thank you for the “natural” mamas who rode their “surges” with intensity like a surfer rides waves. Thank you to the epidural mamas who decided pain wasn’t part of the package they signed on to deliver. Each one took control of her experience and took care of her own needs and I’m grateful to them for doing so.
Thank you to the little brothers and little sisters who were so excited and anxious to meet their new siblings they wet their pants, burst into tears and buried their sticky sweet faces in their fathers’ necks. They taught everyone in the room just how powerful this new relationship would be. A sibling will witness your life, share your fun and misery, defend you, pretend with you and get you in trouble. They’ll be there with you ‘til death do you part and in some small way, the little brothers and sisters understand how overwhelming this commitment will be. Thank you to the new mothers who then handed their brand new baby over to me, took their older child into their bed and cuddled them until they felt secure again. Thank you for not doing what too many parents do – yell at their child for acting like a baby and tell them they’d better get over it because they’re not the baby anymore.
Thank you to all the patients who busted mythology wide open – to the room full of bikers all burly and gruff whose appearance and demeanor were aggressive and scary. Thank you for sitting in a circle on the floor and passing the new baby from one bearded, tattooed, Harley-gristled man to the next, each delivering a small blessing and a stuffed animal for their beloved new baby. Thank you to the stripper who was losing custody of her baby for taking out your nipple piercings and breastfeeding your daughter for the one night you two would have together. Thank you to her friends who surrounded her with love and swore to all that was holy to them that they’d get that baby back if it was the last thing they did. Thank you for the patient who had no arms who held her baby to her breast with her legs as skillfully as any two-armed mama would do.
Thank you for the 20 years I spent at the bedside and for the million stories my patients provided me. I learned a lot and will forever be grateful for that opportunity to serve.
Jeanne Faulkner is a nurse, writer and maternal health advocate. She writes for fitpregnancy.com, Every Mother Counts and is co-author of The Complete Illustrated Birthing Companion. Learn more about her at JeanneFaulkner.com and check out her YouTube channel here.
Jennifer Pastiloff is a writer living on an airplane. She’s the founder of The Manifest-Station. She’s leading a weekend retreat in May to Ojai, Calif as well as 4 day retreat over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif. All retreats are a combo of yoga/writing for all levels. She and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out her site jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up is Costa Rica followed by Dallas, Seattle and London.