My husband Kyle and I walked slowly down the hospital hall, trying to figure out which of us should push the I.V. cart. I wondered when the discomfort would morph into agony and how long I’d be able to hold off before an epidural.
As we turned the corner I saw two young women walking together much as we were, one as pregnant as I, the other in charge of the I.V. cart. I looked down so as not to stare, but my brain registered some vague recollection of one of those faces. I looked up again. The girl having a baby that night, in a room just down the hall from me, said, “Hey, I had you for Writing Comp.”
The memory came back slowly as it does for teachers who see former students out of context.
“I was the bad one in the back,” she offered to help me remember. Then I did.
She had been in a one-trimester elective course I‘d taught a year and a half before. I liked her. She was not bad. She didn’t do all her work, but I enjoyed her writing. I remember now she had written a piece about her grandfather, who was on her to work hard in school and get good grades, something her friends weren’t into.
She was a varsity basketball player. She was always shy, but smiling when I visited her table in the back during work time. She told me once about being there when her sister had a baby.
“Didn’t you just have a baby when I was a senior?” she asked.
“Yep, and I’m having another one.”
I tried to maintain conversation and pretend this was a normal encounter. (I had not planned on socializing with former students in the maternity ward.) She told me she was having a boy, and I told her we were going to be surprised. She told me I was lucky at how far along I was in labor, since she had been induced and wasn’t progressing. Her friend laughed and chatted along with us.
Suddenly, it occurred to me that Kyle was standing quietly behind me and I had not introduced him. I made some vague gesture toward him, saying “we” to include him in the conversation. But that was as far as I could go. You see, as hard as I tried to act normal, there was one glaring detail I couldn’t shake: behind me was a strong, handsome, devoted husband just as responsible as I was for this upcoming delivery, and behind her was a girlfriend. No husband, no boyfriend, no mom – just a friend, probably no older than 19 or 20. I was embarrassed at the juxtaposition and the difference in our fortunes.
Delivering a baby for the first time is scary, a strange assault on your body, but it is also intensely beautiful and sacred. Did she know what was in store? Was her friend ready to support her in this life-altering experience? All I could tell was that the two of them seemed surprisingly upbeat.
I wished her a happy, safe delivery, and my husband and I returned to my room. Before the sun came up, I had a little boy.
In the morning, Kyle made a coffee run while I rested with my newborn. When he came back he told me he had run into my student’s friend in the hall, and found out the poor girl was still in labor.
Then it really hit me. This friend had stayed all night through labor and was still there in the morning, ready to begin another day of the same. Selfless and committed, she was going to be at that new mom’s side as she welcomed her baby.
Would I trade the presence of my brave, adoring husband for such a friend at my baby’s birth? No, of course not. Would I feel lost and alone without him, bringing a new baby home more exhausted and vulnerable than I’d ever been before? Well, yes, I would.
Her friend didn’t replace a husband being by her side as she gave birth. But like many women before her, my former student had found something precious and good in the absence of marital love: unconditional friendship.
We are not meant to experience life alone. We are not asked to go through childbirth and child rearing as strong and lonely martyrs. We can depend on others to share our burdens and our joys. When we are weak and vulnerable, alone and afraid, there we may find love.