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.