I am three years old. I live on a lake in Minnesota. The water is part of my life, like breath.
One sunny, summer day my mother puts an orange life vest around my neck and ties a bow. She does the same for my little sister as my father slides our canoe into the water. My parents place me in the middle of the boat. “Now sit still, or we'll tip over,” says my dad. I'm small, my movements do not affect the canoe much, but I remember being still and careful as we talk about what would happen if we did tip over, the importance of life vests, swimming lessons, water temperature. Actions, consequences, responsibility. Then we are sliding through the water that flows in my veins, perfectly balanced between the lake and the sky.
I don't remember learning how to balance in a canoe. I am three years old, and I am balance itself. Easily I launch the canoe through the water, throughout my youth. At least once a week in the summers, I adeptly paddle and never tip. Did I ever have to learn balance? I just did it.
I grow. I move away. I have babies and go to school and have more babies. I do not paddle a canoe for years but I find balance in my life. Many days the seas are rough and I fear that I may capsize. I learn there are times I must dock the canoe, times I must ask for a tow from my neighbour, times when I cannot do it on my own. I take time to breathe and centre my body. I practice mindfulness. I play with my children. I am strong and capable. I do the work.
We learn to balance by balancing. And balance I do, sometimes with grace, and other times with white knuckles. As I begin my work as a doula, the balance I have learned in the rough seas of motherhood and life and mindful meditation makes entering the birth space easy. Over time I attend more than 100 births, and each time I find my centre, easily, like breathing, and support others through the chop created in the waters of birth.
I am thirty-five years old. Home to Minnesota for my sister's wedding, I stand at the lakeside in the autumn, more than 30 years after that first canoe ride. The air is crisp and cold like apples ripe on the trees. The skies are bright blue, the fire red, and orange leaves fringe the bright, beckoning lake. I look down at the canoe beside me. The shore has changed, now rocky and deep, the canoe an entirely different vessel. But I know how to do this. I am strong and capable as I glide the bow of the canoe into the water, step in and push off. It is shaky; I have to force balance. The stern end swings out where I did not intend it to go. But I know how to correct. I reach back with my paddle and confidently pull the water, bringing the stern toward the shore, the bow pointing forward—
Instead, I pull myself directly into the shockingly cold water. I am a turtle flailing on its back. Water burns in my sinuses, stopping my breath. The canoe follows me and fills with water. Silently the lake says, “I'm quite certain that is not what you were supposed to do, Abigail,” and I sputter and struggle, angry and humiliated. I find my feet, manage the canoe to shore and dump out the water. Soaked, freezing and mad at myself, I put on a dry sweater and proceed more cautiously. I will not fail a task I know like breathing.
I canoe across the lake. There is no ease, no silent slicing paddle through silky water, only a constant struggle for balance. But I do it. I learn to balance by balancing.
I enter Midwifery School after many long years of knowing I would become a midwife, and after several years of working as a doula. I know birth. I know school, and I am confident as I push off into the first weeks of the semester.
Around me are 14 of the smartest people I know. It is strange being in a group of women as amazing as they are. And while I find I do know a lot, I also find myself flailing and sputtering. In the first hands-on clinical class, I catch a baby out of a model pelvis. My baby's umbilical cord detaches, and rather than clamp the baby's umbilicus area, I clamp the cord. I am informed my baby is bleeding out. I am confounded. I've seen this a hundred times, I know what to do, why did I do the wrong thing?
“Why is this so hard?”
“Because now you are doing it,” replies Patrice, my clinical instructor.
And it hits me. I am an upended turtle once again. Armchair midwifery is not midwifery. I am in a new canoe in a new body of water, and around me is only a constant struggle for balance. But each draw of the paddle brings more ease. I am excited, exhilarated, frustrated and annoyed. I breathe and notice. I am learning midwifery.
The seas are rough. I spill IV fluid when I learn to prime IV lines. I cause hemorrhage and “suck out veins” as I learn my first blood draws, and uncontrolled tears stream down my face. I don't get my empathic response right on the first try in counselling class. I force balance; I bail water. But I do it. I have to include myself in that group of amazing women. My place here is not a mistake.
It is hard to stand out when so many people are shining so brightly. It is so much easier to see my weaknesses than my strengths, easier to accept them until they burn my sinuses like water, but I have to accept my strengths as well. Performance on a test does not equal ability or worth. I'm learning to shine in the mirror. I belong here, and day by day, each draw of blood will come with more ease. Each IV line I prime will spill less fluid. And I will learn to celebrate my successes: the day when I find palpating pregnant bellies easier than I thought, the day when I find the baby's heartbeat with a fetoscope. The day when I'm able to shine, strong and confident.
As in life, there are moments of grace and moments of white knuckles. We learn to balance by balancing. I am learning midwifery.