Alice Walker describes a teaching given to her by Sonbonfu Somé from the Daraga tribe of Burkina Faso in West Africa. Sonbonfu teaches that the most important thing in a person’s life is that he or she be properly welcomed to the world at the moment of birth. She says that newborn babies “bring spirit home.”
Over the last 40 years in America, midwives like Geradine Simkins have helped reawaken us to the critical importance of such teachings. No longer does a “normal birth” mean a new mother awakens in a haze to discover that her baby is no longer inside of her. Today, often with the help of midwives, women are fully present while giving birth. Once again, women are able to share something that connects them to all mothers, past and future. Once again we recognize a simple truth: how one is born, and how one gives birth, matters deeply.
This month Spirituality & Health proudly celebrates the wisdom of 25 of these modern pioneers with Into These Hands: Wisdom of Midwives, edited by Geraldine Simkins. The memoirs represent 800 years of experience at 35,000 births. Here are brief excerpts from eight pioneers.
When we began “catching babies” in the ‘60s and ‘70s, most of us had no idea we would became part of an astonishing social movement that would influence and shape the discourse about reproductive rights and the content of maternity care in America. I became part of the new era of midwives at a time when midwifery had nearly been stamped out in the United States. This was an era in which a number of social movements intersected — civil rights, feminism, gender equity, reproductive justice, anti-war, environmentalism, and, as women, we were fighting to regain control over our own bodies and reclaim our own experiences of pregnancy and birth.
Mama and I moved to the United States from Cuba during the late 1960s, and what a blissful time it was for me to enter into sexual explorations. Confusing as it was, I was taken by a movement that encouraged my natural urges, leading me to find beauty in my own body, instead of guilt. I was part of a wave of people who traveled the world in search of answers. I went to California and there I met a lay midwife. She spoke about birth from a point of view of beauty, of the power life has to offer, of how a woman and her family can take the moment of birth as a journey of love and self-discovery.
Her birth description had an old ring to it. I had never heard births described in that way before, but it was reminiscent of the pride with which my grandmother had spoken of births.
I gave birth in my home, surrounded by only a handful of friends. I was nineteen, and I had read Raven Lang’s Birth and Ina May’s Spiritual Midwifery, as well as Mothering magazine, all of which had been newly published. My labor was brutal and my body was full of the pain of the world. But the birth itself was magical ambrosia. That little wet purple girl, coming from me, coming from nowhere, connected me to all the other mothers, past and future.
With the passion that only new lovers know, my birth experience hurtled me into a new life as a midwife. In my early years I learned through watching. I was hungry for each new experience. I read everything in alternative literature, and I followed my teachers, both the midwife and the doctor who first took me to attend births. I also learned from the hundreds of women who trusted their bodies and shared with me their personal and yet elemental experiences of giving birth. In these early years we were a tribe, banded together, giving birth back to women. We were not listening to the institutions. We gathered, we chanted around fires, we told our stories, we called on each other night and day with both the unusual or the difficult. We were proud and smug of the sleepiness in our eyes and the blood on our knees; we knew we held the sacred in our hands.
Twice a week at office hours, I met families full of hopes, dreams, worries, and anticipation of the moment when they would welcome a new person into their lives. I was able to watch them consider how they would make the delicate shifts in their family constellation and take on their new role as parents. By the time labor began, I knew them well. I was able to provide a presence that could instill confidence—the reassurance that all was proceeding normally—and to serve as a vigilant lifeguard who watches from the sidelines. I was able to see them open their eyes and work with the ebb and flow of the wide range of possibilities that is called “normal labor.” I loved being there as they navigated from each totally present moment evolving into the next totally present moment. I was awestruck by their profound efforts filled with the salt of sweat, blood, and amniotic fluid, the juicy, unpredictable intensity. These moments prepared them to open their arms and their hearts as their baby emerged to fill their hearts with the passion and tenderness of attachment to this sweet, pink, soft, vulnerable yet powerful being.
I loved living in this rarified world where my focus was undistracted and protected. There was sanctity in the separation from the disruptions of daily life. I could devote my entire concentration to the energy of labor, how the mother could use it to its maximum, how to conserve it, how to replenish it.
Sometimes just my presence in another room was all that was needed. Other times a word, a touch, changing the lighting, straightening up the environment, or simply opening a window brought support. Sometimes I needed to be very directive to reduce the numbers of well-meaning guests who unintentionally diverted the mother’s hormones away from making labor proceed at its own pace. It was often the simplest things that would make the labor proceed as it should. I remember one mother of three whose body labored erratically, unproductively with baby number four. Then Grandma turned on the oven, and the aroma of familiar, plain, wholesome food wafted its way upstairs into the bedroom. The laboring mama then knew she and her household were taken care of. The baby arrived shortly thereafter.
A midwife plays a role, which is different for every woman she serves. Sometimes I hear women describe how I served at their birth and I wonder whom they are talking about! Sometimes we are shadows on the wall, sometimes kind of bossy in a motherly sort of way, sometimes we step in and make decisions . . . and a lot of the time we just guess until the woman takes a suggestion that is right for her. Years ago, I coached women like mad; I went early and snuggled into bed with them. Nowadays, I encourage mothers to be alone with their partners, and when I’m with them, I hardly do anything at all. Everyone has a picture of me sleeping at their births. Yet, women still see that there is a midwife there with them and they hear and see what they need to make them feel comfortable and confident. I see the confidence that they have and mirror it back. So, I have changed the world for every woman who has seen in me a midwife whom she could trust.
I remember a birth I did in Florida when I first arrived—with a woman who had more faith in me than I had in myself. She was determined that she was going to have a home birth. She was also determined I was going to be her midwife. And I had never experienced that kind of thing before. I was used to being paid to do my job at a hospital where we all understand the nature of the transaction; you show up in labor and a midwife delivers your baby. This, however, was quite a different approach. She asked me specifically, she solicited my services; she encouraged and cajoled me into taking on this work with her. She viewed me and spoke to me as an equal partner in this work. And that was a dynamic that I had never really experienced.
When she labored I watched her. She sat on the floor cross-legged and she rocked and she moaned; and she moaned and she rocked; and she rotated her body in a circular movement, and she chanted, and she rocked, and she moaned some more. Her contraction would build and she would rock and move and moan louder, and her sounds would wane as the contraction went away. I just sat in awe of this woman doing this work and managing her birth. No questions, no “Can you? Will you? Can I? Should I?” Nothing. She just managed her birth. And as she got closer to having her baby, she got herself situated in the position she wanted to be in and she pushed her baby out, and even though I was there to help guide her, she knew what she was doing and just got on with it. I never had seen anything like that before and realized then that women knew how to have their babies. At the same time I realized it wasn’t about me.
River was one of the first human babies whose birth I attended. Lena birthed him in the warm-weather home David had built under a maple tree in the meadow. Her bed was the earth covered with a tarp and a few patchwork cotton quilts. As Lena began her labor that clear-sky July morning, we made a little fire in a makeshift fire pit nearby so we could heat water to wash our hands. As her contractions got stronger and closer together, the clouds gathered and a brief thunderstorm erupted. Lena’s bag of water released. River bounced out into the world as the clouds cleared and the late afternoon sun brightened the valley. I discovered the miracle of easy birth. Once my clean hands were ready, there was almost nothing for me to do but sit quietly. This mother, baby, and father needed hardly more from me than the wind needed to blow through the trees or the clouds needed to move across the sky.
In my culture, an original sacred instruction is that woman is the first environment. In pregnancy, women’s bodies sustain life. Their unborn see through the mother’s eyes and hear through her ears. Everything the mother feels, the baby feels, too. At the breast of women, the generations are nourished. From the bodies of women flows the relationship of those generations both to society and to the natural world. My lifelong message is that, as the ancestors said, the Earth is our mother, and in this way, women are Earth.
From Into These Hands: Wisdom of Midwives, edited by Geraldine Simkins published this month by Spirituality& Health Books. To order a copy visit S&H Books.
Lynsey Stone is a birth photographer in Texas. Find more of her work at: www.dfwbirthphotographer.com.