The Biggest Mistake I Made At Work: Sarah McCarry

An abortion doula is forced to check her preconceptions at the door.

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In which we ask women about their most upsetting workplace disasters. Today, we're talking to Sarah McCarry, an abortion doula who works with the Doula Project in New York City, which provides compassionate emotional and physical support to people across the spectrum of pregnancy.

I thought it was going to be all blood and weeping the first time I went to work as an abortion doula, despite what I'd experienced in workshops and during my own abortion. I pictured hushed voices, pastels, and respectful, caring silence, with a fountain of red spilling out over the exam table. In the midst of this would be Sarah the heroine, the helper. Sarah always saying the right thing. Sarah with her hands extended, saintlike, radiant. I thought it would be about me. I was wrong.

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My job is to be present. To fill the time before the doctor comes in, to hold a hand while she does her work. To love unconditionally in five-to-seven-minute increments. To spout inane patter about the weather, the trains, the bad piped-in Top 40. I used to keep a list of inappropriate songs that have played during people's abortions: "Like a Virgin," "Eye of the Tiger," and that Taylor Swift song that somebody parodied with goat noises replacing her voice. Once in a while, I am both confessor and redeemer: What are you going to eat when you get home, what train did you take to get here, are you doing anything exciting this weekend, yes I think God will forgive you. You know better than anyone if you are making the right choice.

My biggest mistake was in thinking that the story in the procedure room was written with me at its center, in not realizing that the mercy in the room comes not from me, but to me. My first patient didn't say a single word. I thought she didn't want me there. But during her abortion she held my hand so tightly that red marks still bloomed across my knuckles hours later. Tears tracked one by one down her cheeks, and I said, over and over, "You're doing great, you're so strong, you're so strong, you're so strong." Afterward we held each other, and I tried not to let her see that I was crying too. That was when I started to realize it wasn't about me at all.

The way to tell the story, the way to succeed at my job, is to take myself out of it completely. Hands, breath, Gotye on the radio, wheeling the patient into the recovery room (you did great, you were so brave, you did great), calling in another person, doing it again and again until the train ride home. Brimming over, thinking: Any of you could be my next patient, and I could love you too. 

Sarah McCarry is a member of the Doula Project and the author of three novels.

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