Midwifery Today, Issue 136, Winter 2020.
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“One grows up and along comes another!”(1)
The power and superiority of homebirth is not in statistics, politics, academia, wimyn’s empowerment, or even the realms of species preservation. The power of homebirth is that it belongs to the Village.
I sat at the feet of Doña Guadalupe, who was bedridden with age, as she scolded me for my obvious ignorance.
“If you check a mother in labor (do a vaginal exam), you know if the baby is too early or if it will breathe and do just fine. You don’t need to hook her up to machines and scare the wits out of her or ask her questions she doesn’t know the answer to. She is busy and you know better.”
Doña Guadalupe couldn’t see anymore. She couldn’t hear well, but she could feel and she could talk.
I looked around the little room as I sat on the concrete, my eyes below her eye level out of respect. Light magnified through a little window. No electricity to make that wrong kind of humming sound. Statues and images and milagros of saints around a glowing altar of La Virgin de Guadalupe. Color, smells, simplicity, spirituality common to the life of a Mexican great-grandmother who had lived long and well in her ancestral village. I felt at ease. I knew I had it coming to me. All of it. The chastisement meant I was worthy of her time.
I let the ancestral love, as only the poor can offer it, wash over me. It was so like my own Cherokee people. I took a slow breath and waited. The younger do not ask questions of the elders—no matter how old the younger are. They wait. The wisdom comes. Sometimes the waiting is part of the wisdom. I was a midwife. I should know how to wait.
A granddaughter came in and without a word was sent back out. She returned with fruit and bread and some tea. First for her grandmother and then for me.
“You checked her so you did know,” she said with the strength and clarity of a Liberty Bell.
A young mother in the village had come to Doña Guadalupe for help because her “pains” were growing and scared her. The wise old midwife, feeble yet leaning sideways from her bed, had checked the young mother and confirmed that “yes,” the baby was coming. She told Lupe to go to Centro para Los Adolescentes de San Miguel de Allende (C.A.S.A), a small nonprofit in nearby San Miguel de Allende, where the traditional midwives there would help her. Doña Guadalupe insisted that she was too old to help.
I was on shift the night Lupe arrived. The team checked her vital signs and performed a vaginal examination. She had a small uterine measurement for a term pregnancy. The ultrasound indicated that the baby was small, as well. Her lack of prenatal care (2) and not knowing her due date made the team nervous. The decision was made to send Lupe to the general hospital in case the baby needed extra attention. C.A.S.A. did not have an advanced neonatal unit.
Lupe delivered quickly. The baby breathed. The family was charged a fee that was more than their annual income and had to be paid before the baby would be released. C.A.S.A. charged only what the family could pay. The village rallied. The family paid the bill and came home with their baby. This incident broke the trust between C.A.S.A. and the village families, though. Doña Guadalupe was angry and distrustful, as well.
“You knew the baby would do just fine. You checked her!” she insisted.
I came as a peacemaker. I was innocently ignorant of how we could have known that the baby would not be premature or need help to breathe. I could tell by Doña Guadalupe’s repetitive statements that checking Lupe internally was connected to this knowing.
“Early babies’ bones go ‘swish, swish,’” she said without compromise. “Lupe’s baby’s head bones were hard!” Doña Guadalupe knocked her knuckles on the side of her cot. “You knew.” She had nothing more to say.
I sat stunned. She was right. We had checked Lupe. We had felt her baby’s head. We were assessing many things, but we did not know that what we were feeling held the answer to our primary question of fetal development. In all my training no one had ever been wise enough to teach me this obvious assessment skill. Nor had I grasped it through my own instinct. That day, at the foot of this great village midwife who did not read or write, yet was trusted by generations of her people, my training unraveled.
I learned the power of wimyn and birth by traveling to many parts of the world and working alongside village midwives. I learned that twin babies can be born on different days, weeks, or even months. I learned that breech babies “bicycle,” then push against a hard surface (like a floor, if a mother is squatting) with their stiff legs, which quickly flexes their head to “pop” out. I learned the art of sacred cloths used in many cultures to align a baby and close the bones of the mother after birth. I learned the power of prayer to many names of Creator.
Why do we scare mothers? Why do we scare them with machines and numbers and strange words and strange hands inside their private body parts? Why do we scare them with stories of dead babies? Are we afraid? Are we so distanced that we can only think of ourselves? Have we become estranged from the villagers who gather around first and last breaths and all that is in between? Are we professionals at homebirths but no longer the midwife for the one who “grows up and along comes another?” Are we no longer the mother, grandmother, sister, or family of the one who will grow up, look into our faces, and know we were at their birth? In saving homebirth have we lost Village Birth?
My mother was born in 1933 in a primitive country home, weighing three-and-half pounds, and was left for dead. Her grandmother put her in a shoe box with worn cotton and placed her near the wood-burning stove. She fed her with an eye dropper as she did the “scrawny” piglets. My mother lived. She is still alive, strong, and feisty. She “beats her own drum,” as she told me today.
I was baffled in my first pregnancy when the doctor said, “I give you a 50/50 chance to have your baby naturally, but you can try.” He didn’t know my mother. Or her mother. And he didn’t know me. He knew measurements and estimates. I defied them all. My daughter was born in an hour and 53 minutes. I labored on a cold hospital bed thinking, “There has got to be a better way to have a baby.” My second daughter was born at home after three days of broken water and no labor. Once the labor started, I nursed her big sister to keep it going. She was born into her father’s hands after two hours of labor. My third daughter was born at home into my hands and I thought, “So, this is the better way to have a baby!”
Tabitha had her first daughter in late October, just before Hallowed Eve. She had practice labor in September and thought she might have a little Virgo baby. Not so. Surely a Libra! Nope. A Scorpio, she cub-steadied the pregnancy to 43 weeks. During her pregnancy her youngest sister came to live with her and help with this first baby. I arrived one month early to midwife us all. Her middle sister arrived several weeks before. The tribe came running. For each of the next generation born there was a circle of help three generations wide. No mother was meant to birth or raise her child without a village of her belonging. Where is your village? Will they come running?
First and last breaths belong to the village. Today we dug the grave for one of our elders who will rest in our native burial grounds. His young, widowed wife of 59 years is my blood sister. I was midwife to her in pregnancy and to her daughter when it came time to birth her first grandchild. WalkingFire attended the weddings of my daughters and played with their womb babies. We have traveled the world together. Although she is not a midwife by calling, together we have done breech waterbirths in rural country homes and twins in foreign lands. She, too, birthed her babies rapidly and felt the power that “what one womyn can do, all wimyn can do.”(3)
“Have fun!” is her blessing to a womyn near her birth moon. A womyn who can be with birth is a womyn who can be with death. It is not for the weak wishing. It is part of the cycle of life. It takes a brave heart, a calm mind, a patient hand, a clean spirit. It takes a village to create simple and sacred around first and last breaths. We were her village at birth and we are her village in this great time of sorrow.
I love village birth. I love that it takes more time, more visits, more focus, more accountability, and forever more. I love that it defies limitations, standards, and protocols and asks me to look at the value system of the mother and the ways of her people. I love that the prenatal time requires walks, meals, home visits, and talks about postpartum care. I love to help bring together her village, which will serve her long after I have gone home.
I love that out of this passion Village Prenatals has been born and that village prenatals are returning birth to communities around the world in all the countries I have been blessed to visit and beyond.
Beth was having her first child. It was the fourth grandchild for Beth’s mother in the last few months. Moonlight streamed in the little trailer window and shone on the expectant faces of several generations. As we neared the emergence, I put the grandmother’s hands atop mine so they were the first touch to receive this new life.
“You are just what we needed to get us out of the winter blahs!” Her words rang out as a welcome to the holy child born in a meager abode. As it should be, I thought. All as it should be. The child belongs to this village.
A circle of young mothers sat on the floor at the feet of Kalista as she held her warm newborn to her breast. They had each planned a natural birth. They each had a birth by knife. Kalista birthed her Sophie at home in water with a multi-generational tribe around her. Her sister and I traveled 1000 miles to be by her side. Her first hours of motherhood were spent back in the birth tub, heart candles floating with the lotus placenta, while she and her baby were quietly nuzzled by her dog Molly and beloved Trace.
The first four days were spent in the birth sanctuary alternating between sleep, food, and baths. “These were the most beautiful, unrushed days of my life.”(4) For many weeks after, we stayed until she felt steady, secure, and ready for motherhood. Every mother deserves a gatekeeper. Someone who can keep the space quiet, sacred, and practical and welcome special guests for brief moments those magical first weeks.
Like eager, hungry she-wolf cubs, the friends sat whispering at her feet and asked again, “How did you do it?”
“I don’t know,” Kalista whispered, starry-eyed, looking first at them and then at her queen’s jewel.
“If you don’t go in, it comes out.”
I wondered with them. How did she birth against this crazy modern current of fear and control? Her baby was labeled small for gestational age by local midwives. They did not know her mother, who had birthed her first child in less than two hours, or her mother’s mother, who was three-and-a-half pounds at birth. Kalista stayed home. Could she have done so without her village? Would she have?
I am a bridge builder, a keeper of story, a grandmother as old as the trees. I believe in the power of wimyn and the power of a village to hold sacred what a professional outsider can never understand. I believe that by supporting village birth we preserve simple and sacred first and last breaths from one generation unto the next. May all things sacred come to you and from you.
What one village can do all villages can do.
Note: Karice had her first homebirth after two hospital births and a village prenatal every trimester. Below is her power story of Isadora’s birth. We are her village.
Photos provided by author
Isadora’s Birth Story
I decided on September 30 that I was craving Chinese food. I figured I might as well have them make it super spicy; I was 42+3 and I had heard that spicy food can cause labor. I wasn’t sure I believed it, but I was willing to try. After half a plate of my food, I started having strong, regular surges 15 minutes apart. I texted my midwife and let her know I was going to take a shower to see if this was the real deal this time. At 38 weeks I had had regular strong contractions that wouldn’t go away for 20 hours and then they stalled.
After my shower I decided to do some curb walks outside. It was around 8 pm and there was a gorgeous harvest full moon and Mars was bright in the sky. I noticed my surges were getting closer and closer together as I walked in front of my house. I texted my doula and let her know I’d call her when I was ready for her to head my way.
I labored with just my husband until around 2:30 am when my doula arrived. I had mostly labored on hands and knees, leaning against our couch, up to this point. Surges were intense and I only felt them in my lower back. Between midnight and when she was born felt like it took days.
Transition was hard and I felt like I had lost it. I felt like I couldn’t do it any longer and I honestly didn’t want to. I begged to be transferred; I was exhausted and my back felt like it was breaking. I hit the lowest point I have ever felt. Most of this is a blur. I remember lying on my side on my bed and my midwife giving me counter pressure while my doula and husband stayed in front of me. At some point I chuckled between tears and said “What is it that Tabitha says? Homebirth isn’t for the weak wishing.”(5) About that time my midwife recommended I get up and try sitting on the toilet. I sat there for waves of contractions while she and my husband did counter pressure. They got so intense that I had to get off and I was helped back into our room. I made it into the doorway and had the strongest surge yet and had to get on the floor. After it was over, I said “I swear to god if I have this baby right here, I’m going to be pissed.”
My birth team helped me into my room and I decided to get into the pool. It didn’t seem to help my back labor but I was not about to try and get out; it was hard enough getting in. I still didn’t truly believe I could do it.
I kept saying to myself that I could do it, but I didn’t really believe it. I’m not sure how long I was in the pool, but it didn’t feel like long. I felt to see if I could feel her head and I couldn’t. I felt a little defeated because I really couldn’t imagine doing this any longer. Just then, I had a surge that felt entirely different. As it peaked, my waters ruptured. Before that surge was even over, part of her head was born. Little did I know she was presenting OP and appeared to be face first. It took me three contractions to birth her head fully, my body pushing for me. I expected her body to take the same kind of effort so I was taken by surprise when her body shot out in one contraction and she went behind me. My midwife scooted her back through my legs so I could bring her up to my chest. I sat back against the wall of the pool and held this perfect little cherub.
While still in the pool I started feeling crampy and once again started having surges. I knew this meant our placenta was ready to be birthed. I had one strong contraction and out came the entire placenta, all on its own. I was ready to get out of the pool and onto my bed. With no fear, I handed baby to my husband and the rest of my birth team helped me onto my bed. Baby back in my arms, we nursed for the first time and I gazed at this little being, still in disbelief that I had done it. I had my ideal birth.
We kept her attached to her placenta for three hours or so before burning the cord to separate her from her first mother. It took 15 minutes and she nursed the entire time, skin to skin on my chest.(6) We spent the entire day skin to skin, nursing, resting, and talking about how we just did such big work and how proud I was of her.
Photos provided by author
- Quote by Dona Cuca from The Power of Women, by Sister MorningStar. 2009 Eugene: MotherBabyPress.
- It is insulting and inaccurate to say a womyn has no prenatal care. Prenatal care is exactly what the mother is doing between professional prenatal visits. Village midwives understand this fact.
- The Power of Women by Sister MorningStar. 2009. Eugene: MotherBabyPress.com.
- Kalista, inspired and passionate, offers birth story circles to empower other mothers. parenthoodcollective.com.
- This is the same Tabitha in the article, “Village Birth.” The same Tabitha in The Power of Women and the same Tabitha who went to 43 weeks, labored three days, and pushed for six hours.
- The longer one waits to do a ritual candle burning of a cord, the shorter the time to burn through it. Ideally, it is limp, white, AND dry. After six to eight hours or more, it usually takes three songs.