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Harry Potter Was My Doula

by Rachael Holliday

At 41 weeks, I should have been checking into the hospital for my second time giving birth, but instead, I was at the IMAX showing of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, gripping the armrests with each steady, increasing contraction. Chalk it up to my being a Harry Potter super-fan of some sort, but it got me through two childbirths.

As Dumbledore says, 'Happiness can be found, even in the darkest times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.'

For my second birth, even though I was afraid my water would break, I couldn’t miss seeing the movie. The last 20 minutes were in 3D! We had a 15-month-old at home. Adding on a newborn, well, who knew when I would get to see any movie again? But mostly, I knew I would need the comfort I found in the Harry Potter world for the many hours ahead, if my previous childbirth experience was any indication of how this night would proceed.

The fifth installment in the Harry Potter series, The Order of the Phoenix, begins with a Dementor attack while Harry is summering with Ron’s family. Harry is taken to a safehouse in London — 12 Grimmauld Place — where he is introduced to the Order of the Phoenix, a resistance group co-founded by his godfather, Sirius Black. Without disemboweling your emotions too much, the climax of the book is the moment when Bellatrix Lestrange kills Sirius at the Ministry of Magic. He passes through the veil away from Harry in a moment I’d judge as slightly worse than the moment Snape blasts Dumbledore off the Astronomy Tower.

It may seem strange to choose such a film as a pre-childbirth must-see, let alone to say I find comfort in such fare. Part of the reason I love the books and films is I’m a sucker for magic and a British setting. But what really resonates with me is the thread that goes through the series of the characters learning to live with grief, and the loneliness that is part of it — it's something that touches Harry, Luna, and Snape in particular, and a feeling I know well after the deaths of my two sisters when I was a teenager. Jody was 17, and killed in a car wreck. Three years later, my sister Tammy was struck by a drunk driver while crossing the street. She was 25.

Loneliness accompanies grief, not only because you miss the dead person, but also because while you deeply want to have connection with other people, you hold back either out of fear of losing someone else, or because you don’t want to burden someone with whatever you're dealing with at that moment. Of course childbirth is the opposite of grief. I wasn't expecting it to be cathartic, but having my children reopened parts of my heart that I had closed off. As my mother put it, "It's like our family can be happy again."

Like many people, I find solace in reading. I’ve read a lot of books that deal with death, or grief, and while maybe they were thought-provoking or cathartic, they never comforted me. Then I came across the Harry Potter series. Something about them makes me feel better. Whenever I’m feeling down, I burrow under my duvet with one of the books, and before long, I am shopping in Diagon Alley, feasting in the Hall at Hogwarts, or crying over Hedwig dying. Soon much of the heavy hopelessness leaves me — as Dumbledore says, “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”

My husband and I both wanted children. We had been married for 10 years, and had suffered one miscarriage early on, followed by years of nothing. We were considering fertility treatments or adoption — both costly — or not having children at all. I began imagining a different life for myself, and started looking at grad schools, when one morning, I vomited. And couldn’t stop. That evening, I was treated at the hospital for severe dehydration, where blood tests revealed I was six weeks pregnant.

The room was freezing, cheerless and dark, except for one fluorescent light directly over my bed. It was as if a Dementor had been the interior decorator.

The months passed without complications. My due date came and went without any progression towards labor. The baby wasn’t dropping, and, already large, was growing larger. My doctor scheduled an inducement, and we checked into the hospital. The room was freezing, cheerless and dark, except for one fluorescent light directly over my bed. It was as if a Dementor had been the interior decorator. All that was missing was fog seeping under the door. I would have taken Dolores Umbridge’s pink walls over that overexposed room. Already nervous about giving birth, the atmosphere in the room made me feel more apprehensive.

I didn’t have family, friends, or a doula at the birth. I had hoped that since becoming parents had been something we had both wanted for a long time, my partner and I would really bond in this moment as a couple. I realize now that we should have been deeply attached already. In spite of my deep loneliness and need for connection, I somehow chose to marry a person incapable of intimacy. Looking back on my childbirth experiences, I know now that I should have ensured I had support there, but at that time, I was still looking into the Mirror of Erised, hoping that in this moment, my husband would really be there and we would be together. Instead, once I was prepped and settled, my husband converted the sleeper chair into a bed, and lay down. Soon, Grawp-like rumbles came from that side of the room, as he fell asleep.

The Pitocin began working, and I curled up in pain from the contractions. I cried a bit, partly from pain, but mostly from feeling very alone. So, as I had many times before, when I felt blue and needing comfort, I turned to the Harry Potter books. This time, rather than a book, I turned on the audio CDs of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth book in the series.

“It was like having friends,” says Luna Lovegood to Harry, about being in Dumbledore’s Army. And I realized for me, too, it was like having friends there with me in the icy room, quiet save for the sounds of snoring, and the beeps and hums coming from the blood pressure machine. Maybe it wasn’t the same as actually having someone beside me, feeding me ice, or massaging my legs, but as I listened, I relaxed, my body was less rigid and my breathing improved. I felt less scared and alone.

My children are older now, and I’ve cherished sharing the books and films with them.

The baby dropped minutes before I was to be wheeled away for a c-section. Although I was already exhausted, it was time to begin pushing — for hours. I continued to be in a good frame of mind, holding on to the hope offered by Dumbledore: “We must try not to sink beneath our anguish… but battle on.”

Fifteen months later, I was at the theater, watching Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix while in labor with baby number two. Once we checked in at the hospital, I didn’t waste time hoping for the support that wouldn’t be coming, but immediately put on another audiobook. After all, “Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.”

My children are older now, and I’ve cherished sharing the books and films with them. Yet they love the audiobooks most of all. If they are feeling stressed over homework, or have had a tough day at school, they turn one on.

I wonder if those pre-birth moments when listening to the books helped me relax and feel safer somehow transferred to them. I like to think yes, that we not only enjoy the Harry Potter world, but share something deeper, in that what was a source of comfort for me during their births also soothes and supports them now.

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