Village Midwife: Where Has All the Wisdom Gone?
Midwifery Today, Issue 133, Spring 2020.
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I trotted toward the little Mexican village of Salitrillo, trying to keep up with Doña Juanita who was two decades my senior. We were going to make four prenatal home visits where I would observe Doña Juanita offering the Mexican sobada (massage) and rebozo (sacred cloth). All the Mexican traditional midwives used these skills as part of their regular prenatal care. Although I had observed for nearly a decade, I still marveled at what wisdom and art lay in the assessment and application of these simple hands-on tools—oil and cloth.
Under the hot Mexican sun, we arrived at the home of Julia, who was busy in her gardens and babying her hundreds of plants around the little structure she called home. There was a waist-high brick wall with an assortment of flowers, herbs, figurines, and living creatures scurrying about as she watered the coffee or vegetable can containers and chatted with her teenage daughter. We greeted with a touch of eyes. Julia and I were a bit shy. Julia sent the children off to play while we followed her into her little room with a cot for a bed and no artificial light. There I watched two dedicated wimyn discuss the world within and the world at large until the conversation circled around to how Julia felt these days. How was she sleeping and how was the food settling in her stomach? Were there any aches or pains or struggle climbing up the hills or walking to town? What worries occupied her mind; for we all have worries.
There was no documenting of vitals or long notes. No start or stop time for an “appointment.” No discussion of risks or benefits of suggested procedures. No review of past reproductive health or herstory. No disclosure of midwifery skills or training or experience. These wimyn lived in the same community and neither could read such charting nor would they trust any evidence based on something outside their world. Their dialogue and agreements lay in a trust of the familiar and in genuine caring. There was something powerful in the informal, potent exchange. Something ancient and continuous. Something of the sacred feminine being preserved, along with midwifery skills that I had never learned in my studies or formal training. I felt so honored to be invited into their sacred spaces.
Doña Juanita turned to me and said, “Estrellita (little star), Julia would like a rebozo treatment. Her hips have been aching and she feels the baby is lying differently than her others.” I smiled and asked permission to take a picture. Doña Juanita replied, “Estrellita, you have watched long enough. It is time for you to earn your bread. You climb on the bed and help Julia.” I stood stunned.
There was no negotiating. I climbed upon the solid cot, positioning the rebozo beneath Julia’s hips and using as much tenderness and confidence as I could call forth, while Doña Juanita stood a full 4 ft 10 in tall with arms folded, studying me. I told myself to stop thinking. To remember what I had seen and how the cloth moved and how the body moved in the cloth. I could see that the baby was lying diagonally, but Julia had had many babies and there was time. I repositioned the rebozo, making sure Julia’s hips were well supported.
I talked too much in my feeble effort to relax myself and create an impossible feeling of lifelong connection. “Thank you for your patience with my Spanish. I am new at this. I love Mexico and all the colors and music and food and people and land. I love birth and mothers and learning new things. Thank you for welcoming me into your home and helping me learn. I hope I can help you.”
Julia smiled and said nothing. Just eye contact. I wrapped the ends of the rebozo around my wrists, held on tight and began to sway and rock side to side. Julia closed her eyes and relaxed. I wanted to close my eyes, too. I could feel the baby rocking opposite me. I knew not to talk any more. I knew to feel my way. To be with Julia and her baby and the oceanic movement that the little rebozo ship was creating. Finally, we had a rhythm, and Doña Juanita nodded.
We finished the day as we started, with me trotting to keep up with Doña Juanita. We hustled to return to the point in the connecting paths before dark, where I would await my bus back to San Miguel de Allende. We had visited a primipara—a teen mother who wondered if she might birth at the general hospital and get free food and professional newborn care including free “shots.” One mother wasn’t home and Doña Juanita wondered if she was away on purpose and also had decided to birth at the hospital. The last mother looked worn and worried, with many children, much work, and an absent husband. The old wimyn spoke of the changing world and agreed that no one was the happier for it. Meanwhile they patted the corn flour and water into tortillas and softened the lines of their faces with laughter. That was the prenatal. Helping Maria with her chores and making the tortillas while talking about life. Each family we visited asked Doña Juanita about her own health and the whereabouts of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Each one paid Doña Juanita with eggs or vegetables or words of gratitude and promises to help when they came that way, including the family where the mother was away.
It was palpable and undeniable that Doña Juanita was a village midwife. “Did you notice that Anna was laboring with her breathing when she was talking about whether to birth at home or go to the hospital like her friends?” Doña Juanita asked me as we walked.
“Do you think she was nervous or do you think she is having trouble carrying her baby?”
She waited and then said, “Her mother had that same trouble.”
She asked me several similar questions, trusting me with what was on her mind more than the burden of teaching. Her skills of observation, while making tortillas and chatting about the world, as she noticed the subtleties of the mother’s body, mind, and soul, were born of a lifetime of experience. I am not sure any other village would have wanted Doña Juanita or that she would have known quite what to do with another village. There was nothing standardized about how she knew what she knew or did what she did. The same was true when I walked the paths with Doña Cuca, Doña Guadalupe, Doña Marta, Doña Candelaria, or Doña Leonora. This was Mexico in the turn of the 21st century. You can read about these brave torch bearers in The Power of Women, if you love facts in herstory as I do (MorningStar 2009).
Doña Cuca hurt her knee and struggled to walk the cobblestone paths to the auditorium where Centro para Los Adolescentes de San Miguel de Allende (C.A.S.A.) was having an international conference in the state of Guanajuato. I offered a ponyback ride, which she accepted. As we made our way to the section reserved for the traditional midwives, I remembered Doña Cuca’s wisdom etched in my heart. She and I often pondered the future of midwives and the knowledge they wanted to pass forward. Her pondering was rich in wisdom. “The young wimyn want money for their labors. They do not want a chicken and some eggs. But, Estrellita, what will they buy with their money, except a chicken and some eggs?”
I sat Doña Cuca gently down on her feet and walked around to greet the other midwives that had made the journey from their little villages to the big city for this herstorical conference to discuss “Professional Midwifery” in Mexico—something they would never be recognized to do. All around me, something being born and something sacred being lost. “Where will their wisdom go?” I wondered, like a little she-cub with her paw in the footprint of a Great Mother She Wolf on the move.
I watched as local ministers of health and education around the world had collectives and demonstrations to determine the success of their Traditional Birth Attendants Initiative. The participating traditional midwives were given a 10-day course on how to identify risks and send mothers to “skilled” facilities. They also received a few gloves, a pair of scissors, one cord clamp, and a bar of soap. These special participants received the title “traditional birth attendant (TBA).” Along with the International Confederation of Midwives and the World Health Organization, local health and education ministers were slowly identifying who was doing what. Waves of what felt like propaganda spread through the villages, promising to replace the TBAs with “skilled birth attendants,” thereby improving and modernizing birth. There was no admission of the medicalization of birth. Everything was posed as an advancement, a human right of wimyn to have “the best.” I was a translator at one such meeting. The midwives were supposed to draw on a life-size paper figure all the parts of the body they knew, inside and out. Doña Marta took a crayon and drew an eye and sat down. Doña Lupe said, “Why did you draw one eye? They will think we are stupid!”
“Why do we have to be the ones that are stupid?” Doña Lupe defended herself. “Everyone knows there are two.”
I was the translator for a similar testing of knowledge and skills, where the midwives were asked such questions as: Do you ask about previous babies? Do you ask about miscarriages? Do you ask about violence in the home? Do you ask when they had their last period? And more. To all of these questions the midwives answered, “No.”
On the break they asked me, “Estrellita, why do they keep asking such things? We would never ask a mother what we already know. She would think we were with the government!” The crevice between these two worlds was not translatable. I felt my heart sink.
In 2007 I attended another such gathering in San Luis Potosi that affects me to this day and ultimately shaped my own practice and future activism. Doña Candelaria, adorned with her headdress and colorful smock, stood barely 4 ft 4 in in the middle of a makeshift stage with officials and cameras all around, while she awaited the explanation of a pretend scenario to test her midwifery knowledge. She did not speak Spanish. Her dialect translator placed me in front of her as the pregnant mother. “This mother’s head is hurting. Her eyesight is blurred. Her feet are swollen. Her pee is dark. She feels nauseous and is scared.” As the Doña started to hear these words, she began to stroke my face. She stood on her tiptoes and caressed my jawline and ran her fingers through my hair. She stopped listening to the translator, who began to translate to me in Spanish what this “unskilled” midwife was saying. “Oh, dear child! You feel terrible. This is not a sickness like others. You need help. Come, we will go to my home and you will rest and I will feed you. You are growing a baby. You need rest from your work and a calm, dark place to rest your body and mind. I will bring you food. You will see. You will feel better soon. You are pregnant. All will be well. I will help you.” She stroked and spoke so gently. I closed my eyes, feeling secure and calm. I wanted to follow her home and eat the soup and rest.
Abruptly my eyes shot open. “Get her off the stage!” shouted the attending hospital obstetrician. “She is dangerous and uneducated! Get someone trained to replace her immediately.”
Doña Candelaria was removed and before me stood a stout womyn with a TBA tag pinned to her uniform. She received the same scenario. She looked at me with stern eyes, pointed her finger, and said, “You are sick! You might die! You must go to the hospital immediately. I cannot help you! Go!” The shock waves rippled through my body as she walked off. I stood there dazed by the cheers and affirmations of the ministers of health and education proclaiming that this womyn acted correctly. They asked the audience, “Do you see that the first womyn didn’t recognize dangers in pregnancy and the second one did and acted as you must act?” I walked off the stage without agreeing.
Many more such experiences filled my next decade of international travel. In Russia, Julia took me to an underground sauna to experience some of the healing rituals she was preserving and passing on to her students. Without a translator, I experienced herbal baths, oak and cedar branch bathings, herbal oils from vats, massages from hair to toe, prayer baths, cold water, and earth blankets. Later I watched her perform a closing of the bones and a recall of spirit that reminded me of the traditions of the temazcal in Mexico, the Inipi ritual of the North and the soul retrievals of my own Cherokee people. In every land I was watching the wisdom that protected the body-mind-soul connection be killed off or driven underground. Again.
The psyche of the modern pregnant mother was suffering from instinct injury and nature deficit disorder. Turning my energy, attention, and focus toward the mothers, I created village prenatals. The village prenatal had nothing to do with the concept of group prenatal. It was about taking off professional hats and surrounding a mother with interest in her ideal birth and listening to her worries, fears, and concerns. It was about feeding her, bathing her feet, and playing with her baby. It was rich in storytelling—positive birth stories only. It was a home room, filled with other mothers who had birthed in power and had the will and passion to show up for another community mother. It didn’t matter what her birth plan was or became. It was about seeing her as the most valuable, sentient creature among us: a holy mother carrying the future of our people. Prenatal villages spread around the world and still exist.
By 2016, I had relinquished my professional credential: a certification I had worked to co-create and believed would preserve a non-medical model of midwifery with an emphasis on continuity of care. I believed it could help preserve the village midwife and her wisdom as she had done from the dawn of time. Ancient and continuous. This decision to let it go was a long time coming. I had to face that the professionalization of midwifery had led to its medicalization and was a threat to the things I held true and sacred. Like the village midwife, I was disappearing.
Not every village midwife midwifes birth or first breaths—or even last breaths. Some midwife the breaths in between. “She who walks the way of the Sun,” the clan mother of the Bear Clan and a she-bear of the Mi’kmaq tribe in Canada, is a drum keeper. She midwifes those who preserve sacred sound. I sat before her in silence. She walked the way of the sun and set up altars and incense, made prayers to the four directions, and began to tell the stories of her people. Stories of her ancestors who created the frame drum and how she made the one she was gifting to me. Stories of the elements, the timelessness, the voices of the ancestors and the plant spirits. Stories of the children finding the beaverwood for the drum handle and how she would keep the whitetail deer skin for one year in case I wanted a rattle—which should come from the same spirit. Stories of the days of fasting and sweats to prepare for the making, the receiving, and the awakening of a drum. I sat in silence and listened to stories of her studying what I was doing in this world and how she wanted to support this sacred work. She sang the songs of her people. I heard the song of my people. The heartbeat in the drum beat. My soul was being midwifed. I closed my eyes. I turned off my mind. I felt the ancient and continuous love of a village midwife.
In 2018, I celebrated the 25th anniversary of coming to my Holyland. Our community had retreats and celebrations and hundreds of hours of shared work in the gardens and burial grounds. I decided to rebirth a pathway for the village midwife. We are made up of wise, elder midwives who souls need to be cherished and truths need to be heard; new graduate midwives who long for more; young, aspiring midwives who are lost and confused; doulas on the fence; birthkeepers of all names. In these gatherings we study and talk about all aspects of midwifery. We make healing balms, walk the land, gather herbs, review cases, practice skills, sing, question, retrieve our souls, and discuss how to be in the river with a birthing mother, rather than walking along the shoreline. We contrast our experiences as professionals and our needs as birthing mothers. We expand our perspective to family and lifelong care and care of the next generation. We talk about legal fears and political distractions. Sometimes it feels like too much talk. As always, I talk too much when something sacred is endangered and I am unsure how to preserve it. I have learned that it cannot be preserved in books or a classroom or a credential. It is like the wind and flowing creek waters. If you are among the blessed ones, it will change you without you changing it.
As the artificial womb becomes first mother to the new Earthlings, I feel incredibly alive as a remnant of my sacred, organic, endangered species. I feel my ancestors. I feel the wisdom of the great ones who touched my face. I feel inspired to birth wimyn’s circles and prenatal villages all around the globe. I love teaching “NewBorn First Breaths” as an alternative to the medical model of newborn resuscitation. My love and devotion to the village midwife grows along with my white hairs.
Look! I have become as one of them! When someone asks for my statistics, I hear the echo of her voice in mine. “Only the Great Mother knows! One grows up and along comes another.”
This article is written in honor of the great wise teachers who are still serving me from the other side.
- MorningStar, Sister. 2009. The Power of Women. Eugene, Oregon: MotherBaby Press.