In the beginning years of our birth work, my doula partner and I took a trip to The Farm in Tennessee. We had been taking on birth after birth, emulating as busy of a doula practice as we could muster as a way to quickly gain birth experience and also gauge how well we and our families would cope with life on-call for the transition to midwifery that we assumed was just around the bend. We were both bright eyed and in that sort of lusty, new, obsessive love with the birthing process – the honeymoon that just seemed to be full of rainbows and unicorns and all sorts of awe and expectation. We attended births with love in our hearts and amazement in the strength of women and their supportive partners. We supported women through unmedicated, medicated, vaginal, cesarean, hospital, home and birth center births. We held hands, pushed on hips until our bodies ached, stretched our personal physical and emotional limits in order to be what every mother who hired us needed us to be. We studied all sorts of evidence, read research papers, listened to podcasts, watched documentaries, witnessed debates, grand rounds talks. Every experience was pure bliss, another little bit of understanding of the birth puzzle.
All was well, until it wasn’t. The more births we attended, the more patterns we saw and the more questions and discontent we held in our hearts. Nearly two years in, we had tumbled down the rabbit-hole and had become very aware of the difficulties of working within a largely institutionalized system. I struggled to keep track of and find my place within never ceasing and always changing politics, policies, provider preferences and bias while desperately trying to hold space for my clients, all while working through my own bias, triggers and practicing non-judgement (or what I believed to be non-judgement at the time). I became very aware of differing and sometimes extremely polarizing opinions on how far women’s autonomy and rights to self determination ought to influence or drive events in the birth room. I saw coercion, bullying, manufactured consent, obstetric violence, skewed information giving and permissive language that marginalized and brought layers of pain to my clients.
These new perspectives had come in to challenge deeply held beliefs, values and ideas of what birth should be and served to quite forcibly shattered my worldview. Birth became very political for me and the beauty of the process, the sacredness of holding space, my love of supporting women paled in the enormity of everything I couldn’t control, in a system that seemed much bigger, fiercer and more powerful than both my clients and I were. I questioned my purpose, whether I could make a difference at all. I questioned everything. In retrospect, I was simply entering the beginning of my heroine’s journey. You know, the part of every good story, where the hero/heroine feels safe and accomplished and all is right with the world – the part right before the incident – the loss of self identity, of everything familiar. I was Alice falling down the rabbit hole, Harry Potter in every upheaval. I was as close to burning out as I could have been – perhaps I had even crossed over the threshold. I didn’t recognize myself and I felt incredible conflict with my desire to stay a doula, and seriously doubted my ability to ever become a midwife. I was also plagued with ever growing guilt over my mothering and the burden on my husband, which had been heavily impacted through the emotional upheavals of these new realizations. So my partner and I made a smart choice. We took six weeks off call, booked our flights to Tennessee and a six day workshop at The Farm.
It was our first official pilgrimage into the world of authentic midwifery and we were excited to steep ourselves in the wonderful energy and wisdom of Ina May Gaskin, Pamela Hunt and the rest of the amazing midwives living there. We practiced rudimentary midwifery assisting skills such as dilation checks and checked fetal heart tones with fetoscopes and dopplers while palpating pregnant bellies. We had classes on nutrition, instrument sterilization, bloodborne pathogens, managing third stage complications and basic newborn assessment. This was our first tangible glimpse into midwifery outside of our own births and those few we had attended as doulas. I was also in the middle of my own third pregnancy, and while the mothering portion of my being was gearing up for my labour and homebirth, I was also sitting deep in the realization that my dream to apply to a Canadian midwifery program was going to have to be realistically pushed back by a couple more years. I didn’t know what I was going to do in the meantime. Would I continue doula work while raising my three kids until I felt ready to move forward, or was I going to give into my broken heart and throw in the towel? Those questions had lain heavy on my mind during the flight to Tennessee. I found however, that with every class I sat through, every skill I learned and had the opportunity to practice, every conversation with either fellow classmates or The Farm midwives themselves, that I was exactly where I needed to be for my birthwork, my mothering and myself as a woman.
The book “Mama Midwife” appeared on a table in the waiting room of The Farm’s clinic space, the day before we were set to head home. I was between classes, having practiced checking vitals all morning and was waiting for the closing of our workshop. So I picked it up, thinking it would be a great read for my very birthy older kids before our new baby came. I read through – this story of a little girl who holds the perspective of her mum, a midwife as being a sort of superhero. The little girl hosts a sleepover, and her and her friends all play pretend at “delivering” each other’s babies and rushing off to save the day, until mid book, where the little girl is invited to join her mum in attending a birth. The little girl watches as her mum keeps a careful eye on the labouring mother, but does not interfere or race in to be the savior. She normalizes the process for her daughter and encourages the mother to be. At the end of the story, she whispers something in the birthing mother’s ear and the mother digs deep and her baby is born. When the little girl asks what her midwife mum said, her mum replies that she was reminding the labouring mother that she had everything she needed to birth her baby already within her. I felt comforted and unraveled by the story, in part because I think I recognized even then, that the way I had been trained and guided to act as a doula, the mindset I had gotten stuck in, was in direct conflict with how I wanted and needed to attend women in birth.
Months later, I gave birth to my third baby as a hands off water birth at home. My midwives provided respectful support through my short labour and I was for the most part, undisturbed in my process. I caught my baby myself, my very first catch. My midwife smiled and told me “your first catch should be your own”. I can still put my hand on the back of my son’s head and feel the rush of endorphins, power and the feeling of my true self (though he’s not as obliging at sitting still for the cuddle at two and a half).
I found Mama Midwife this afternoon while tidying up my daughter’s room and had to smile and share with you all here, the synchronicity of coming upon this book, nearly three years after my trip to The Farm. As I type this post, my application for midwifery has been considered and moved forward and am counting down the remaining days until my interview. I’ve come to a place in my birth work where I have finally let go of the pain and anger of that intense disillusionment that threatened to completely destroy my love of birth. I’ve made peace with my own birth trauma and have learned how to effectively work through those traumas vicariously taken in through attending other women. I practice self care, am kinder, more gentle with myself and others. My perspectives have broadened widely in terms of understanding the physiologic process, the many faces and truths of birth, of really hearing women speak their stories, their needs, their fears. I’ve opened my heart to becoming a facilitator and a bridge between birth philosophies, where I once felt I needed to stake a claim on a far end of that spectrum.
Most of all, this past year in particular has taught me the importance of compassion for everyone present in the birth room and the importance of meeting people where they are, rather than where I want them to be. I still don’t agree with the “birth as disease, except in retrospect” inherently pathological mentality that is so dominant within our North American culture and I can rant for days about legal and ethical trespasses against birthing women’s autonomy. The difference is, that I feel that everyone – the nurses, physicians, NICU staff, mothers, fathers, families, doulas, midwives – everyone really is trying to do the best that they can with the resources they have, the perspectives they are currently entertaining and within the context and truth of their own lived experiences. Women do not birth in a void and care providers do not attend births from a place of true non-bias either – we all bring in our stories, our experiences – for better or worse.
The idea of forming collaborative relationships and being part of a cultural and fundamental shift in how care providers, our children and birthing women are taught and exposed to birth along with the prospect of adding myself as a participant in providing truly respectful maternity care continues to drive me forward. Its a complicated, exhilarating, terrifying prospect – to finally be saying “yes” and to answer The Call after all these years.