Descartes and Doulas

Nonfiction / Kascha Semonovitch

:: Descartes and Doulas ::

When I went into labor, my doula asked me think of a mantra—something I could repeat—for the ear­ly part of the process. For this phase, my doula said, I need­ed some­thing that took a lit­tle con­cen­tra­tion, took a lit­tle of my mind because I would not yet be all body. Some peo­ple liked to look at pic­tures or sing or dance. Or repeat­ed a poem or a prayer. Just repeat­ing om om or hum­ming would work for when, hon­est­ly, it just doesn’t mat­ter what you’re think­ing because you’ll prob­a­bly just be mak­ing nail marks in your partner’s shoul­ders or shit­ting your­self. But for this part I need­ed a lit­tle phrase to say and say again to keep the mind busy.

She thought maybe I could recite a piece of poet­ry I had mem­o­rized. This hor­ri­fied me. Instead, I choice to recite the struc­ture of Descartes’s Med­i­ta­tions as laid out in the syn­op­sis. In ret­ro­spect, I can see how I sound like an arro­gant aca­d­e­m­ic. But it was hon­est­ly the best thing I could think of at the time: it was some­thing I had mem­o­rized while teach­ing to the point of entire­ly inter­nal­iz­ing it so that I could think it even while dis­tressed. “Dis­tressed” in ref­er­ence to active labor is one of those awe­some euphemisms only child­birth edu­ca­tors would use. If you’re “dis­tressed” in labor it is in the way that dis­tressed fab­ric has been beat­en or dyed until it changes struc­ture. It will nev­er look the same.

My doula and I, it turns out, didn’t get along. I nev­er spoke to her again after she “suc­cess­ful­ly” guid­ed me through an un-med­icat­ed labor. At the end of the labor, my pelvis broke in two, and I couldn’t walk for months. She didn’t vis­it me in the hos­pi­tal.

But in the begin­ning, I trust­ed her, and I picked the syn­op­sis of Descartes’s book. It is one of the most com­mon required texts in intro­duc­to­ry phi­los­o­phy class­es, and also one of my favorites. This is the struc­ture of the text:

1. Doubt all things.
2. Prove the exis­tence of the mind.
3. Prove the exis­tence of God.
4. Deter­mine cri­te­ria for truth.
5. Prove God again.
6. Prove the exis­tence of the exter­nal world and the divi­sion of the mind and body.

In ear­ly labor—which for me last­ed about fif­teen min­utes because I had a baby in three hours—I repeat­ed, One doubt all, two prove the mind, three prove God, fourth truths, five prove God again, six the world, one doubt all, two prove the

Then, I would get inter­rupt­ed by pain and start again. It’s a lit­tle like the habit of count­ing steps while you’re run­ning; not all run­ners do it, but I know many who will sim­ply count steps when the body has pleas­ant­ly tak­en over the mind so that count­ing is about all that’s left.

Repeat­ing the struc­ture of The Med­i­ta­tions made sense as mantra. The con­tent of The Med­i­ta­tions made absolute­ly no sense at all.

The Med­i­ta­tions are all about struc­ture. For­mal, log­i­cal struc­ture. For teach­ing pur­pos­es, the point of read­ing The Med­i­ta­tions is not at all to show they are cor­rect. The lessons include learn­ing how to make dis­tinc­tions, how to devel­op ter­mi­nol­o­gy, how to trace the ori­gin of ter­mi­nol­o­gy through his­to­ry.

But the big rea­son we teach the text is that it demon­strates how a log­i­cal struc­ture must be con­sis­tent and that that struc­ture can be an effect per­sua­sive tech­nique. And that start­ing from the wrong premis­es can lead you to the wrong con­clu­sions. The text’s log­ic is hard to refute if you can’t dis­pute the premis­es. If you real­ly let your­self go in a read­ing of The Med­i­ta­tions, you are per­suad­ed by it.

When the book opens, Descartes is alone. He is in his bed­room with some free, pri­vate time: “I have today suit­ably freed my mind of all cares, secured for myself a peri­od of leisure­ly tran­quil­i­ty, and am with­draw­ing into soli­tude.”

The labor­ing body does not have this priv­i­lege. As a par­ent one abdi­cates the right to pri­va­cy for many years; labor­ing takes away that priv­i­lege entire­ly. Prac­ti­cal­ly, espe­cial­ly in the U.S., you sim­ply are not allowed to be alone when labor­ing. I chose to have my hus­band and doula with me for com­fort; at the hos­pi­tal, the nurs­es had to stay with­in earshot and at least with those part­ners. I shat myself over and over in front of at least three peo­ple. It could have been a city; I don’t know. Pri­va­cy was not an option.

But exis­ten­tial­ly as well, I was not alone. I was not; the sin­gle let­ter “I,” stand­ing there alone, does not refer to the preg­nant body. The preg­nant body is not iso­lat­ed. It is not a con­tain­er for two minds or a stack of mind-body Russ­ian dolls. The preg­nant body is a vari­a­tion on all bod­ies; mind a flower on the stalk and seed of body. In labor, it isn’t pos­si­ble to won­der if you are alone: the immi­nences of a force that is not you rup­tures your sense of self along with your labia.

The uterus almost turns inside out in the final phas­es. In our birthing class, the mid­wife demon­strat­ed it by pulling a large, knit, wool sock over a baby doll and then push­ing the baby out, leav­ing an invert sock. The image stayed with me.

The baby would ini­ti­ate that. This was sup­posed to be a mirac­u­lous revelation—our babies were already com­mu­ni­cat­ing with us. I heard not beau­ty but a sci-fi movie voice inton­ing, We are not alone. I know I wasn’t alone in the class in think­ing that this was hor­ri­fy­ing; the aliens inside would decide when we got turned inside out.

By con­trast, Descartes, lone­ly male, decides he has to prove he is not alone: “If this objec­tive real­i­ty of any of my ideas is found to be so great that I am cer­tain that the same real­i­ty was not in me, either for­mal­ly or emi­nent­ly, and that there­fore I myself can­not be the cause of the idea, then it nec­es­sar­i­ly fol­lows that I am not alone in the world.”

The con­tent of The Med­i­ta­tions not only does not fit the state of labor­ing but it does not fit the state of liv­ing either. Even for a per­son priv­i­leged with soli­tude, this proof makes no sense if you look at the body. No mam­mal bod­ies lack proof. If, instead of only metaphor­i­cal­ly navel-gaz­ing, Descartes had lit­er­al­ly keeled over and peered into his navel, he would have seen evi­dence that, at least once, he had not been alone in the world. He too once dehisced.

In the log­ic of the text, Descartes would argue that he could not address his navel because he’s not sure it’s his. At the same time, he admits between med­i­ta­tions that this bod­i­ly dis­con­nect is hard to main­tain for the length of time it takes to read a sen­tence or an entire med­i­ta­tion. The body nev­er ceas­es exert­ing its grav­i­ty on the mind and a prop­er proof takes this into the equa­tion.

But the fun­ny thing about the mind is that it can con­vince itself, if even for a lit­tle while, that it is not the body. You can feel, while tap­ping away at your com­put­er, while los­ing track of time, while check­ing out of a con­ver­sa­tion, while deceiv­ing your­self about pain or about per­cep­tu­al scale—the phan­tom limb, the per­spec­ti­val twist of a tall building—that you are not the same as your decep­tive sens­es.

That odd duplic­i­ty of the mind—to know it is not sep­a­rate and to try to be—is worth pay­ing atten­tion to. Even though it might not be cor­rect to say we are mind and body, we often feel it is.

But not when we’re hav­ing a baby.


When I pushed the baby out, the lig­a­ment that con­nects the two bones of the pelvis let go. With­out that sup­port, I couldn’t walk. So after work­ing so hard to have a VBAC—a vagi­nal birth after C‑section—I was more bed-bound than any C‑section patient. I couldn’t turn myself over in bed; I couldn’t pee or poop alone. When I final­ly went home, I was wheel­chair and walk­er-bound for a few months.

The worst part, how­ev­er, was that I was in the hos­pi­tal alone for five days with­out sleep­ing. A few hours after they put the baby on my chest, my hus­band went to the bath­room and puked. A stur­dy virus had him and my three-year-old vom­it­ing for days. As a result, they couldn’t come to the mater­ni­ty ward.

I called my doula. She said she had decid­ed to change careers. As in, she had decid­ed that very evening. She said that to me at two in the morn­ing. I don’t think it was entire­ly me and my failed Carte­sian meditation—I think she’d reached a point of exhaus­tion and age and she’d run out—but I was the imme­di­ate casu­al­ty.

So there I was, alone in the hos­pi­tal bed, not able to roll over and def­i­nite­ly not able to sleep. Since I’m bipo­lar, this was espe­cial­ly a prob­lem. My hus­band wasn’t there and my OB was out of town and my doula quit, so no one men­tioned the state of my mind. On the fourth night I saw the wall­pa­per move—there was no wall­pa­per in the hospital—and I heard voic­es wak­ing me up and I wasn’t asleep. I called for my hus­band even though he hadn’t slept much for a few days either, and he, beloved, got up and left the sick three-year-old with a friend.

But I still couldn’t sleep. The next day, after fig­ur­ing out how to get a wheel­chair into our old house, they got me home, and every­one hoped I’d sleep bet­ter. I didn’t, and it took some heavy anti-psy­chotics to bring me down.


The fun stuff comes at the begin­ning of The Med­i­ta­tions—Descartes con­sid­er­ing how often he’s been wrong when trust­ing his eyes, spec­u­lat­ing that all the peo­ple on the street out­side might be “automa­ta,” won­der­ing whether he might be mad, if his sens­es might be con­trolled by an evil demon. Could we mere­ly be brains in a vat, minds stim­u­lat­ed by some evil genius? Could the world be an illu­sion like The Matrix? Could, well, the wall­pa­per be mov­ing on its own? Fun ques­tions for intro phi­los­o­phy class­es.

But in the end, Descartes is not a fun guy. He’s not an artist but an archi­tect, and the bor­ing kind, work­ing in CAD. He lays down an epis­te­mo­log­i­cal foun­da­tion one irrefutable fact after the oth­er: if I say I am think­ing, then I must be some­where think­ing; if I exis­tence some­thing bet­ter than me and more reli­able must have made me; all those things I have proved in the same way I would prove math­e­mat­i­cal for­mu­la­tions, so I will use that mod­el from now on for every­thing; look how well it works for God—God is as obvi­ous as a tri­an­gle; giv­en how per­fect God is, he wouldn’t be deceiv­ing me about my feel­ing that the world is real­ly there and that body and mind are sep­a­rate.

By the end, the body and the world are back. The body is real, but the body is not the self—because the self can see this, can make this dis­tinc­tion. The reli­able mind has proved the world is also reli­able and ready for study by physics. Descartes, anx­ious to par­tic­i­pate in the new empir­i­cal sci­ence, want­ed to get out of the house of ontol­ogy and on to physics. Because the medi­a­tions claim to end think­ing on this top­ic defin­i­tive­ly, Descartes’s “med­i­ta­tion” prac­tice is, in a way, the oppo­site of philo­soph­i­cal think­ing. Philo­soph­i­cal think­ing, reflec­tion, is nev­er real­ly over; it always goes after the next dis­tinc­tion, the fin­er clar­i­fi­ca­tion.

Still, still, Descartes is worth read­ing. Descartes is fas­ci­nat­ing because even in his fail­ure, he draws your atten­tion to the edi­fice of self you’ve been stand­ing in. My good­ness, you say, but this thing is frag­ile, the cor­ner­stone is imma­te­r­i­al. This self is blown away with a lit­tle meta­phys­i­cal wind. We bet­ter build a bet­ter thing.

My expe­ri­ence of those who love to phi­los­o­phize is that they love the ques­tions Descartes posed no mat­ter what he con­clud­ed. They love to stand at the door­way of the house of meta­physics and won­der if it will fall down on their heads. They won­der about going mad, even if it’s the poets who most often do. Even for Daniel Den­nett, who dis­miss­es the homuncu­lus as laugh­able, The Med­i­ta­tions serves as what he calls an intu­ition pump. The medi­a­tions stir up desire. The text is a get­ting-our-hearts-minds-going tool. In oth­er words, it needs the body and its desires to com­pel us to read it.


I was hor­ri­fied at my doula’s sug­ges­tion that I recite poet­ry because I knew it would make me feel too much; it wouldn’t help me be a mind, it would get me going, adding emo­tion­al fuel to the fire.

But in fact, The Med­i­ta­tions also get my heart going. They fill me with hope for think­ing. They remind me of the plea­sure of the mind, of the click­ety-clack of the epis­te­mo­log­i­cal ham­mer and the fun of look­ing at the struc­ture togeth­er.

The Med­i­ta­tions is a post-par­tum text. When we are not in labor, we feel the lit­tle fire of fear that we are alone. The post-par­tum body now holds the oth­er lit­tle body  out­side and can’t be sure of it any­more. The wall­pa­per moves beneath sleep worn per­cep­tion.


In a sto­ry in Chang­ing Planes, Ursu­la K. Le Guin imag­ines an ontol­ogy where peo­ple are like birds; in youth, every­one says fierce­ly, Let’s go to the city, every­one leaves the dis­tant nests and flies togeth­er and works away, and then after a bit, the wind changes, and they look at each oth­er and say, Isn’t it time to go home? and they wing to the coun­try, have babies, and die only when the babies are ready to fly away. No labor­er would need a doula to stand in for the com­fort of oth­ers.

But we are not birds who migrate togeth­er at the twitch of the light. Sea­sons of the mind do not coin­cide. Even when bod­ies com­mu­ni­cate, the baby ini­ti­at­ing its way out­side, the mind resists, con­vinces itself it can stay. Flock­less, we let our young depart like the dead.

The navel is, after all, a scar.


I wasn’t very good at being in labor; I cried, I begged for the epidur­al, I hat­ed the doula, I hat­ed all of it, I want­ed to get back to my mind. In ret­ro­spect, I would choose med­ica­tion, peace, less fuel, less fire. There’s enough to be when hav­ing a baby.

I haven’t taught The Med­i­ta­tions or any­thing else since I had my sec­ond child. I have a great deal of self­less life, and a child named Lucian, from luce, the light—all that end­less light, the light of the mind, that light that kept me up think­ing until there was no more think­ing left.

I may not teach, but I still read, and I read The Med­i­ta­tions for me, for the plea­sure of notic­ing that lit­tle sense of self that keeps deceiv­ing itself into exis­tence. And for the plea­sure of fear that fol­lows. A doula offers com­fort. There is no com­fort for suf­fer­ing of life, for the suf­fer­ing that results from mere­ly hav­ing a mind. Labor­ing toward a baby leads to no more safe con­clu­sions about the self than The Med­i­ta­tions. All I can say after is that it’s all right to let a lit­tle decep­tion con­tin­ue; it’s all right to think you are your sin­gu­lar self, to enjoy the decep­tion of men­tal life.


From the writer

:: Account ::

This piece recounts a labor. I wrote it because that event keeps ram­i­fy­ing through my life. Birth doesn’t end with the end of labor. Women are encour­aged to go back to the work­place, to lean in, as if a sin­gu­lar mind-body had not exis­ten­tial­ly irrupt­ed into two. As a philoso­pher, I can’t think through birth in the terms of the texts I have been trained on. These texts were pri­mar­i­ly writ­ten by male authors, priv­i­leged with a pri­va­cy I have nev­er had since giv­ing birth.


Kascha Semonovitch’s poems and essays have appeared in jour­nals includ­ing Quar­ter­ly West, The Belling­ham Review, Zyzzy­va, the Keny­on Review, and oth­ers, and in the chap­book Gen­e­sis by Danc­ing Girl Press. She has received a PhD in phi­los­o­phy from Boston Col­lege, an MFA in poet­ry from War­ren Wil­son Col­lege, and fel­low­ships at the Mac­Dow­ell Colony and the Ucross Foun­da­tion. The edi­tor of two col­lec­tions of philo­soph­i­cal essays, she has taught phi­los­o­phy at Boston Col­lege, Seat­tle Uni­ver­si­ty, and the Hugo House in Seat­tle. She runs an art gallery in Seat­tle.