Midwifery: Pronounced like a whiff of smoke
Feeling a contraction wave building, the young woman’s eyes frantically search about the small space looking for escape. Her glance is caught and held by the gaze of the older woman standing before her. Placing her hands firmly on the new mother’s hips she gently guides her into a squat and in a low voice encourages her to follow her natural instincts and push. Step by step, together they work to bring the baby closer to being born. As the wet head emerges the older woman carefully cradles it waiting for the shoulders to rotate and pass through. The mother reaches between her legs and together they bring the baby’s slippery body to her breast. This is the ancient practice of midwifery; the oldest profession for women. Across cultures, across the generations, and around the world women have been helping, supporting and guiding other women during the birth process for centuries.
In many cultures the midwife is an honored member of the society, the keeper of many forms of female wisdom; respected, even revered. This was true even in America until the rise of physicians in the late 1700s. One hundred years later, a systematic propaganda campaign was waged by the medical profession to take this respected position away from women and put it under the control of male doctors. Because midwifery was taught by hands-on learning, from midwife to apprentice, there were no text books. Many midwives couldn’t read. Their practice wasn’t scientific or clinical so it was easy to brand them as uneducated. They could not read books but they could read birthing women. After a concerted effort by the male dominated medical profession midwifery all but died out in the U.S and was eventually declared illegal in many states.
In the 1920s public health nurses serving the poorest members of our society, who were often ignored by doctors, began to seek out midwifery training. Mary Breckenridge founded the Frontier Nursing Service to fill this need, eventually moving away from helping the rural and urban poor birth at home, to catching babies in the hospital. By the 1950s nurse midwives were legally providing midwifery care to women in U.S. hospitals under the control of doctors.
Skip to the revolutionary 1960s when hippies choosing intentional lives more in tune with nature’s rhythms and outside of the establishment norms caused resurgence in midwifery. In 1971 a caravan of hippies was traveling across the country from San Francisco to found a commune in Tennessee. A baby was coming and, like a monarch butterfly finding its way back to Pismo Beach without ever having been there, a woman stepped up to encourage and support the new mother. That night Ina May Gaskin became a midwife. Six years later with the publication of her book, Spiritual Midwifery, a new generation of American home birth midwives was born across the sands of time. To this day, these pioneers of the ‘60s and ‘70s continue to move the art of midwifery and the laws surrounding it forward. They are a guiding light for the passionate young midwives of this generation and the mothers who choose to birth with them.
In 2008 Ricki Lakes’ The Business of Being Born hit movie theaters; igniting a fresh wave of women seeking midwifery care. Now the internet is full of women starring in their own home birth videos with a supporting cast of midwives. The women of SLO County have the good fortune of working with midwives to birth at home, in a birth center or in our hospitals.
May 5th is the International Day of the Midwife. Join the Birth & Baby Resource Network, French Hospital Family birthing Center, Community Health Centers, and Sierra Vista Birth Center as we honor SLO county’s midwives at the 16th annual Birth & Baby Fair in Mission Plaza from 10 to 3. Stop by the BBRN booth to learn more about the reasons why the World Health Organization says for the safety of moms and babies we need many more midwives working around the globe. Find out their fantastic birth statistics and what that could mean for you, or hear how you too can join the oldest profession.
Was your baby born into the capable hands of a midwife? Please visit www.bbrn.org and join our SLO Midwifery Project.
Jennifer Stover is the owner of Labor of Love Birth Education & Doula Services. Visit her website: www.slolaboroflovedoula.blogspot.com