The Call to Midwifery
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today, Issue 88, Winter 2008.
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“You have the best job in the world!” I hear this quite often when I tell people what I do. I agree, of course. I do have the best job in the world. I know, however, that the vision in the mind’s eye of the speaker is the blissful moment when the baby slowly crowns and then slips its way into the waiting hands of a calm, not-at-all-blood-splattered midwife. The reality, of course, is that by the time the slippery-baby-entry thing happens, the calm midwife has been through many hours of back-rubbing, poop-wiping, cervix-checking, amniotic fluid-splashing labor.
At the time of the birth, I am, hopefully, calm, but also fatigued, sweaty and hungry. And don’t get me started on the post-birth photos! Why can’t we take those at the beginning, when my hair is brushed and I don’t have creases on my face from sleeping at the foot of the bed on a wadded-up towel? Oh, right, the baby’s not out then, and the baby figures prominently in birth photo ops.
Still, I do have the most amazing job. Well, not a job, really. For me, it’s a calling. A vocation—from the Latin word “vocare,” which means to call or to summon.
What’s the difference between a job and a calling? It’s simple—you choose a job, but a calling chooses you. It finds you and then harasses you until you respond. Of course, you might respond with a resounding “no way!” but I’m inclined to believe that callings are not so easily deterred.
Sometimes, I think my call to midwifery came to me before I even knew what a midwife was. It probably came way back when, as I crowded my way into our tiny back bathroom to help one of our many cats birth her kittens. Or perhaps, it came long before that, before my birth—a little egg awaiting its destiny in my mother’s ovary, with the midwifery gene already programmed in.
However long its dormancy, the call presented itself loud and clear when I wandered into a bookstore on 8th Street in Greenwich Village in New York City. A misplaced Southerner, I had enrolled at NYU during the winter term. I was struggling with everything—leaving home, the biting cold, city life, down coats and gloves—when I stumbled into that store. There, on a bookshelf facing the entrance was a beautiful book, the cover all purple and swirls. It literally called to me. I took off my gloves and pulled it off the shelf. Spiritual Midwifery. Hmm. What’s that? A quick glance. The book was mine.
I carried it with me everywhere for a few months, reading it on the subway and in taxicabs. I’m sure my friends began to dread seeing it tucked under my arm, as I was more than eager to share with them the birth stories and photos, time after time. It was as though I had found in it an essence of myself—who I was and who I was meant to be. It was a defining moment.
Life, however, makes it own definitions for us. Midwifery was not to be for me for many years. Instead, I lived my life—earning two degrees, getting married, giving birth to four children. The calling was still with me—stalking me, lurking in the shadows. While my classmates in the master’s program for Multilingual/Multicultural Education were perusing their copies of the TESOL Quarterly, (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) I was practically memorizing my copies of Midwifery Today and The Birth Gazette. I wasn’t unhappy being where I was—I loved learning in all forms. I just knew that all of my little detours were just that—side trips that would eventually land me back on the path toward midwifery.
Then, one day many years later, it happened. I found myself completing an application for the Florida School of Traditional Midwifery in Gainesville, Florida. I visited the school for an interview and then the orientation for new students. All of a sudden, I was driving almost three hours one way each week for three years to complete the program. I was to be a midwife, finally. I began attending births in my community with the midwife who had been my caregiver during my last two pregnancies. I was attending classes two days a week, doing clinic one to two days a week and on call five days a week. I’m not sure how I made it through those three years—juggling school and homework, driving the long distance to school, managing call and clinic. Through it all, I knew I had to still be able to be the mother my children needed and deserved. Three years later, I came out on the other end—a licensed midwife employed at the same birth center where I completed my preceptorship. Looking back, I don’t think I could do it again—or wouldn’t choose to do it again—knowing how exhausting and draining it would be. I realize now that I had no idea how difficult it would be and once I was in it, I was too immersed in it and committed to it to quit. Perhaps, ignorance is truly bliss.
Ironically, once I actually stepped onto the path of becoming a midwife, my obsession with it changed. I no longer read and re-read my old copies of Midwifery Today. School took up much of my time and what little was left I devoted to my children. I was no longer dreaming about becoming a midwife—I was living it. There is a moment when the romantic notion drops away and the reality of being a midwife—many hours with no sleep, answering beeper calls at all hours of day and night, being unable to plan anything with certainty—sets in. Then, of course, come the heart-stopping moments of midwifery—an unexpected hemorrhage or shoulder dystocia—that push you to places you can’t imagine going. Somewhere along the journey, you find that you have transformed from the starry-eyed midwife-wannabe to the woman who, even though she moans when that beeper goes off, gets up in the middle of the night for the fourth night in a row and then prays on her way to the birth to be the best midwife she can be for that woman.
Of course, sometimes the transformation doesn’t take place and the midwife-wannabe moves on to other occupations. Hopefully, this happens before she has spent all of her time and money on the three full years of schooling, but sometimes it takes those three years to gain that understanding—the understanding that midwifery is just not for her, or maybe, just not for her at that moment in her life. I’ve seen students finish everything but their last few births only to decide that what they want is a regular nine-to-five job that offers a lot less excitement than midwifery. And that’s okay. Maybe that long detour through midwifery school was what they needed to find the path to some other calling in life.
Then there is the student who hangs with it through thick and thin. She’s the one who hands you the ambu bag during that harrowing cord prolapse and still wants to be a midwife the next week. The student who acts as your birth assistant during those six births in as many days, taking turns napping on couches and floors and eating cold pizza with you for breakfast. The one who postpones other plans to spend the day driving with you from postpartum to postpartum one day and ends up cuddling with you on a narrow cot in a freezing hospital room during a transfer the next. (Yes, Alina, that would be you!) She’s the student who is undergoing her transformation, emerging from her chrysalis, spreading her proverbial midwifery wings. She will follow her calling to its end.
A calling is a tricky thing, however. It’s not your average job. You can’t just ditch it like the part-time cashier position you had in high school. You’re stuck with it even after that unfortunate moment, after a particularly hard week, when you actually add up all your hours and realize that you’re pulling in, oh, two bucks an hour and remember that you were making at least $10 an hour as a cocktail waitress in a redneck bar twenty years ago. But, since your calling is not that of cocktail waitress, you pull yourself together, catch up on your sleep and vow never, ever to calculate your hourly wage again. And you keep going.
I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened to me if I had never moved to New York City for that one cold semester, had never wandered into that bookstore on 8th Street and had never found Ina May’s book. I like to think that midwifery would have found me sooner or later. But, maybe the whole point of my going to New York was to find the book. I remember next to nothing from that semester—I can’t even tell you which classes I took. But I do remember that day—the day I found that book, all purple and swirls. The book that called my name and led me down the path to my life’s calling. As a cocktail waitress.