The beautiful babe in the photo above may be all mine, but the story below is not. My dear friend Kate and I go way back to teenage-hood camp staff days. She was certainly way cooler then myself, but agreed to be my friend anyway upon discovering that we were, in fact, kindred spirits. I was beyond excited when she agreed to write her midwifery story as a guest post for me while I welcomed my third little person into our family (and how fitting that this was my first midwife-attended birth!). I know that you will enjoy her story immensely and be as riveted as I was at every last word. Enjoy!
I get one of two responses when they hear about my midwifery-ness. One smaller group sort of glazes over and says, “unhunh”, which I take to mean, “That is seriously one of the grossest/dullest/craziest professions on the planet” and/or “I care not one whit about this aspect of our conversation”. The other, larger, group gets that look people get when something is unusual/offbeat/interesting, and then they frequently ask, “What got you in to *that*?!”
Usually, I tell people that I spent some time Central America and was inspired by the potential for public health education in the child-bearing year. It’s true, I did spend nearly a year in Honduras between high school and university. It was an experience that really can’t be described, but I can describe the feeling of sitting on a rickety little chair in someone’s dusty backyard, makeshift medical clinic draped around me, as I translated for a fourteen year old mother who was worried about her four week old baby.
Oddly, I do not remember the baby, I do not remember what the doctor I was translating for on that particular day said or did for this woman. I remember the mother’s face, and I remember how I managed to translate without thinking about what I was doing because all I could think was, “Babies shouldn’t be fed sugar water multiple times a day!!! No wonder the child is not doing well, he needs breastmilk!” I knew I didn’t know very much about breastfeeding, or being a mom, but I knew a few things, and I knew that if this mother knew what I knew, she would have a healthier child. I can point to that single person, a fourteen year old woman in a developing country, and say that she kindled the little spark that made me want to be involved in educating people about the child-bearing ear. How did I get from Honduras to midwifery school? I have no idea. Truly. I don’t remember when I first heard about midwifery as a profession. I know at some point in high school I read Chris Bojalian’s “Midwives”, and realized that midwives existed beyond biblical times and the Appalachian backwoods in the 1930’s. I do not know when I realized this was a viable career option for a (nearly!) present day girl from the Canadian Maritimes.
I went from Honduras to Dalhousie University’s International Development program. Because I did an accelerated high school program, and then negotiated for some credits for my language training and experience in Honduras, I was technically at the end of my second year of university after only a year there. That’s when I decided I was going to study midwifery. I called my parents to announce this grand new plan. And my mother, in that clever way mothers have, managed to convince me that I was already half-way through my current degree and that it would be much, much wiser to stay the course and then go on to other things. I wasn’t entirely convinced but, in that not-as-clever way that nineteen year olds have, I conceded.
I really don’t enjoy academia, so I manged to finish off my degree by spending more time abroad than in Halifax. I hooked up with midwives wherever I could along the way. In Senegal, I got to follow a local midwife around as she taught in a midwifery school and worked like a woman possessed to convince traditional healers and practicing midwives to do away with the pratice of female genital mutilation (female circumcision). In Cuba, I researched and wrote an honours paper on the use of pregnancy “houses”, where woman with even fairly low levels of risk are ensconced for up to the entire duration of their pregnancy. I managed to work midwifery in, in little pieces, wherever I could.
I was completely beside myself when I got my acceptance letter to the Midwifery Education Program (MEP) near the end of my final semester. I called the professor who had written one of my recommendation letters and shrieked in her ear for a good five minutes before she managed to understand who was calling, or why! I will admit to not realizing, at the time, what studying midwifery was going to mean. I was excited that I had managed to avoid having to deal with the real, scary world of grown up with a grown up job, and excited to be studying something I was totally in awe of.
The MEP is a four year bachelor of Health Sciences in Midwifery offered at a consortium of three schools in Ontario (Laurentian, Ryerson and McMaster) as well as at UBC. Because the Ontario group is a consortium, you can only apply to one school. I chose Laurentian because they have a focus on rural and remote practice, which was appealing both because I wanted to practice in a development context down the road and because I thought there might be some neat, additional skills we might get to learn.
I got married, and then, two weeks later, we packed up my new husband’s little car and drove to northern Ontario. Every time I went to class or spent time with classmates I was floored by one of tw things: there are some seriously amazing women in this world, and midwifery is like a very highly addictive drug. The more I knew about midwifery, the more I wanted to know. I had never before experienced an academic setting where going to class was the highlight of my week. I’m pretty sure I didn’t blink for the entire three hour core class ever week, and I’m equally sure there was a slightly goofy looking grin on my face the entire time.
We got pager and women to “with woman” during our first week of intensive training in September. The word “midwife” means “with woman”, and the program assigns 1-3 women to first year student. Student follow the women throughout their pregnancy, birth and postpartum period. The idea is just to observe. I laugh, because we were glued to those little black, silent, pagers. We carried them compulsively, checked them constantly, fantasized about that first, real, birth. And, um, they never went off. The first time it went off, I could hardly think, I was so excited. I managed to navigate the automated message system, only to find out that it was our program administrator sending out a “Has anyone seen Amy?! Her sister is in labour and wants her to come!” to all of us. For the record classmate Amy was camping in a provincial park with no pager coverage and missed her sister’s homebirth. Bummer. My “with woman” didn’t have her baby until February. And my husband had to figure out what that “annoying noise” was, after a good ten minutes of complete bafflement, when my pager finally went off.
We were also assigned to observational hospital shifts. One twelve hour shift every month. I started off with fireworks. I put on scrubs, manged not to impale myself with my nametag, and then walked in to the room of a very actively labouring woman. In fact, in retrospect, so many things were wrong with the situation. she was so intensely focused on pushing that I didn’t feel comfortable interrupting her to introduce myself. No one else did either, I guess. The first words I heard were from the ob on call, “Hey, she’s got a cervical lip! Put on a glove and come feel it!”
So, I put on a glove. In the time it took me to snatch up a glove and jam it on my hand (believe me, I was moving *fast*!), the lip had resolved, but the ob had me put my hand in there anyway. It was the most incredible thing. There was no cervix left at all, and this wrinkly *head* was slowly, slowly moving into my fingers. A nurse held out a second glove for me, the ob had me applying counter pressure to this poor woman’s perineum, and *I* caught the baby. For real.
I laugh at myself now; I was so scared I was going to drop this greasy, new little person, that I pretty much threw him on to his mother’s chest. Bum first. I’m sure his mother would have much, much rather seen his face first.
I’ll also never forget the smell of that first birth. It’s not good or bad, it’s just blood and fluids and other things, and it’s very distinct. It’s the sort of scent that takes over all the other scents. For me, it’s sort of a ground smell. Initially, it’s strong, and close enough to unpleasant, that it sort of pulls you out of the haze of wonder enough that you can have a coherent though. A good thing for a birth attendant, really. I still smell that smell at every birth I’m lucky enough to witness. And now, I love it.
A lot was wrong with that birth picture: the hands in her vagina as she was pushing, the people she didn’t know doing intimate, important things (like, oh, catching her baby), the complete lack of consent about having a student “do” anything to her, etc, etc. But, it was an incredible experience for me. It was only in retrospect, when the birth high and the feeling of that small person sliding into my hands had ceased to overwhelm all other thoughts, that I realized that I would never want to give birth in that situation. It wasn’t hellish, it wasn’t terrible, but there was a definite lack of respect for a woman doing the most important work of her life. Reinforcement that midwifery care is the way to go.
To be continued… (Part Two and Three to follow)