Preserving Simple Birth
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today, Issue 75, Winter 2005.
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I am MorningStar and I believe in the stories and prayers of the people to preserve simple birth. As a Native American and a retired midwife with 30 years of experience working among minority populations in the USA and indigenous peoples in Mexico, I feel confident, excited and encouraged that we will face the challenge before us and simplify birth. It is in the stories that we begin to understand where and how to help.
“Estrella, we know we must take our wimyn to the hospital. We know the ‘higher ups’ say we are the ones who make birth unsafe for our mothers. We know our mothers want to go to the hospital where they can birth like the rich wimyn. But where are the prayers?”
I heard this story personally from a Bolivian midwife at an international conference in Mexico. National health ministers met to explore the potential power of midwifery as an autonomous profession and its place in the modern health care system. Wisely, they invited traditional midwives from Central and South America. Wisely, they listened to their stories.
“Sandi, you did real good speaking up for us at the public hearing at the capital but you should have said one more thing. You should have told them that the reason for their high rate of interventions in the hospital is because.…” and the kind Mennonite men began to tell me their story. “If you take a chicken who is about to lay an egg and you put her on her back and make a lot of racket all around her, you are going to have to pull out the egg.”
I agreed. We sometimes forget that we are animals and have many similar needs, especially during pregnancy and birth.
Those of us who still live close to the land and to instinctual life know that birthing animals need privacy, quietness, dark, stillness, a sense of the familiar, their own nest and simple warmth, shelter, water and uninterrupted contact with their babies. We know that if we keep it simple, the mother will be relaxed and have a greater chance of bringing forth her young by her own natural instincts and will nurse and protect her baby with alertness and sacrificial constancy. Nothing is taught, yet she learns everything by trusting her instincts and being with her own kind.
The Value of Birthing Stories
I remember loving the story of the elephant circle the first time I heard it. Elephants come close and make a circle around a birthing mother and begin to sway and make sounds like the mother makes until the young is brought forth. I use the Elephant Circle in teaching midwifery students how to stay present, supportive and connected with the birthing mother when they are primarily observing and have few hands-on tasks to do.
I cherish the story of the bat midwife who watched a young struggling bat mother birthing from afar. She came close, to hang right-side-up and role model the only time a bat assumes that reverse position. I teach midwifery students to trust their instincts and encourage the mother to trust her own instincts: to read less and walk more.
Midwives are often powerful storytellers. The greatest power I have witnessed is to hear a wise elder, the midwife or the grandmother, say to a young mother in labor, “You are having a baby. Your great grandmother gave birth to (gave light to) your grandmother. Your grandmother birthed your mother. Your mother birthed you and now you will birth your holy creature. You are not dying, you are giving birth. We call this word medicine, and it is powerful and potent and good medicine for a womyn who wants to give up and give away her power.”
The Challenge of Simplifying Birth
Physicians, specialists, midwives, nurses, policy makers, anthropologists, mothers and the children themselves are challenged in our present time to simplify birth. Most of us agree that birth, in general and by nature, is a normal process in healthy wimyn. Most of us agree that closely monitoring the well-being of the mother/baby couple improves outcomes. Most of us agree that there is more to birth than a physical experience. Most of us agree that birth has a lasting effect on the culture and the future of society as well as on the mother and baby in the moment. Most of us agree that birth has become excessively techno-centered and we struggle with who, how, when and where to simplify. Many of us are also parents, as well as professionals, and we know quite personally the challenge before us and the deep desire to keep birth simple.
I believe the great obstacle to our ability to meet the challenge before us is fear. Once we face, name and find ways to reduce fear, both professionally and within families, we can use our creativity, research results, modern knowledge and ancestral wisdom to simplify birth. We have fear of legal recourse, fear of professional censorship, fear of judgment, loss of practice privilege, civil and criminal law suits, fear of social and political exposure, fear of failure in the face of our clients, families and colleagues and fear of death itself. Fear of all this has taken the place of respect for Mystery. Left to nature, we do not know when or how birth will come; how long it will take; if the mother or baby will do well, need help or not survive. It takes a strong heart and soul to allow the mystery to unfold naturally. It always did and it still does. The stories and the prayers made and make the people strong. It isn’t only the mother who needs strength of body, mind and soul. So does her mother and her mother’s mother. So does the midwife and the helpers. So does the husband and other children and the whole community who loves her. So does the baby, waiting and working to be born among her strong people.
Every baby deserves a mother and every mother deserves a village to support her.
Midwives and Mothers
There are many experts in the field of maternal-infant health but one expert is often minimized or overlooked. Each professional has an obligation and privilege to be seen as one among many serving the central expert, the Mother. By providing helpful information, continuous support and sincere encouragement, we affirm her rightful place and we shift the fears of the unknown to deep respect of the Mystery. No one wants a better birth or birth outcome than the mother. Most mothers and babies do live and we must begin to ask ourselves what they live with.
I often asked the village people, “Who is your midwife?” They look around and when they finally settle on someone, the stories begin. “I watched my mother help my sister birth and I soon learned how to help. Then one day the river was up and the midwife couldn’t get across, so I helped the mother myself. The baby lived and after that they called me midwife.” All around the world the central village midwife is old and dying with no one to replace her. Every year I ask Doña Cuca if she has anything she would like to tell me. She works in a rural village in Mexico and is the last midwife for many villages around her. Doña Cuca is old. “Estrella, the young girls don’t want to walk in our path. They don’t want a chicken or some eggs. They want dinero/money for all their hard labor and work. And I ask you, ‘What are they going to do with their money except buy a chicken and some eggs?'”
I listened and I understood what Doña Cuca was telling me. Like Doña Cuca, I wonder who will continue the Holywork and what it will take for them to want to. We must find a way to keep the calling alive and pay our midwives more than a chicken.
I have had the privilege to participate for over a decade with the government pilot project in Mexico to renew the role of the community-based midwife within modern health care systems: the small social change organization Centro para los Adolescentes de San Miguel de Allende (CASA). CASA began in the 1980s in response to the needs of adolescent wimyn and mothers. By the end of the 90s, CASA built a small maternity hospital and began the bridge-building necessary to become the first government-recognized midwifery education program. CASA targeted daughters of rural traditional midwives and created a three-year program designed to meet national and international requirements. There is a great deal of brilliance in the CASA model, which is duplicated in many other parts of the world now. But the great success of CASA reaching at-risk populations is that her doors, heart, mind and hospital are open to the traditional midwife. She is part of the educational program, she uses the hospital as needed, and she hands out with pride the diplomas to CASA’s graduating classes.
In all my years I have never attended a birth, whether in or out of a hospital, where the power and mystery of birth energy didn’t ultimately call forth prayers from the mother, families and attendants. Sometimes the prayers are silent whispers. Sometimes they are elaborate recitations. Sometimes they are chants and sometimes they are simply, “OH GOD! Help me! Help us!” (in their own native tongue). I recall attending a cesarean section and humming a comforting hymn to the mother while they cut her open. The anesthesiologist said, “Estrella, what are you doing? Do you want her to go to the other side? Chat, chum, make a joke; keep her here.” I’ve seen every kind of professional pray and I’ve watched all affirmed atheists drop to their knees. I’m not talking about religion. I’m saying that in pregnancy, the mother needs to hear the powerful stories of her people; and in birth, the people need their prayers.
It sometimes surprises people to learn that I am a hermitess nun with religious vows of contemplation and service which I live out in a little cottage in the Ozarks of Missouri. My mission, vision and vows of service have taken me into the homes and villages of thousands of people. I have had the rare privilege of personally witnessing the power that fills a womyn’s body and spirit as she brings forth her child by her own instincts. I have witnessed wimyn who labored three or four or five days, determined to self-birth their baby. I have witnessed many wimyn who pushed six hours and one who pushed 13 hours, determined to self-birth their babies. I have witnessed wimyn birth twins on separate days, determined to self-birth their babies. I have witnessed wimyn (and sometimes grandmothers) nurse twins, siblings and orphaned babies. I have witnessed wimyn sit bedside with their sick babies for days and nights and days and nights. Did I say sit? I meant to say stand until they stumbled.
I have witnessed the fierceness and fearlessness of wimyn’s work in Motherhood that makes any man’s work look like leisure. And all of this I have witnessed them do as volunteers, willing servants of humanity, never charging and never offered payment.
Like many, I give myself to bring our consciousness back to sacred and simple birth, especially caring for the poorest among us. I stand speechless at what we continue to accept as ever more technological, modern birth. Speechless and silent, now retired in my Rose Cottage on the Holyland, letting the truth of it all be in my ears as my sisters call me from around the world with their pleas for a voice. Speechless as I gather with global sisters who are giving their lives, as I am, to developing collective voice. Speechless before wimyn with body scars and broken hearts and missing wombs. Speechless. until the Truth is loud and clear and strong. Speechless and silent until the falsehood demands a reply. I then, in courts and assemblies and wimyn’s gatherings and at board meetings and conferences and with students and mothers and our daughters and in the mirror, open my mouth and speak and add one more voice to the Voice of our ancestors.
Like William Allen White, my advice to the wimyn of America is to raise more hell and fewer dahlias.