Having worked with pregnant and laboring women in some capacity for six years now, I desperately wish I had started this blog at the moment of my awakening. And it was just that: a flash of insight and deep knowing. A light bulb that, once illuminated, changed my view of birth (and of the world) forever. Hindsight is a clever trickster, though, wearing down the jagged edges of our life’s journey, insinuating that we have always known the end of the story. Standing in the chaos of our most profound decision never feels quite so clear, though. So, while I tell my story with the knowing that I can never re-create the naked truth of how this path unfolded, I can point to those moments that altered my trajectory in life or that altered my perception in some palpable way.
My introduction to midwifery was just such a moment. In truth, I had no prior interest in or knowledge of pregnancy and birth (and frankly, I didn’t really care to learn). I stumbled, quite literally, into the world of birth. What a happy accident that was! My dear friend and massage therapy colleague urged me to join her for a workshop about prenatal and postnatal massage taught by a midwife/doula/massage therapist. In addition to this one-weekend course, we signed up for a second weekend workshop called Labor and Birth: In Your Hands with the same midwife. I had no idea this course would be my first introduction to the word “doula” and to the midwifery model of care. I proceeded blindly.
The universe has an uncanny sense of humor. Prior to these workshops, not only did I have no interest in working with pregnant women, I actively refused to offer prenatal massage at the spa where I worked. I was terrified of pregnancy and birth, and I had no frame of reference for what to do with their bodies during a massage. All of my technical knowledge revolved around the non-pregnant body. I was comfortable. Why, you ask, would I go to a massage workshop solely designed to prepare me to work with prenatal and postnatal women? The wildly unsexy answer is that I needed continuing education hours to maintain my good standing with my professional organization. The other motivating factor was the fact that my sister had recently shared the secret of her first pregnancy with me. The knowledge of my sister’s growing baby was just the push I needed to put aside my fear, and go. I wanted to be able to do something to participate in this mind-boggling event. Massage was the only useful tool I had.
What I learned during the two weekends with this extraordinary midwife was nothing short of paradigm shifting. At the time, I was a 27 year old woman who had given no thought to the wonder of my own body. I knew almost nothing about my femaleness and what it was designed to do. I was a prime example of a young woman who had fully absorbed the cultural fear surrounding birth. Until that point, I seriously questioned my desire for children because of my intense fear of the pain associated with the task of birthing (not to mention the general chaos and unpredictability of the actual children birth would produce). I sat, stunned, as I learned about the true physiology and psychology of labor and birth. It was the first time I considered the fact that birth was a journey, a normal process during which the mother not only gives birth to her baby, but to herself as a mother. It had never dawned on me that the experience of birth could be…empowering.
First came the feelings of wonder and awe.
Then came the outrage…
I learned not only about our miraculous design, but also the many ways in which modern medicine has ignored and interfered with that design, to the detriment of both mother and baby. As a massage therapist, I was already keyed in to the fact that our current medical paradigm is more of a symptom management/emergency management model than a system that honors and harnesses the inherent capabilities of the human body. My passion was in educating my clients and helping them to take an active role in their own care. So many people I knew were passive recipients of medical care, with little understanding of their own bodies or the ramifications of the care they were receiving. I had no idea how profound was this disconnection in the world of childbirth. The way in which we dis-empower women and expose them to harm in the name of “medical management” (or control) began to look barbaric instead of heroic.
The second weekend of class began, and I was still trying to wrap my brain around all I had learned. We sat in a semi-circle around the room, and the question was asked by the midwife: why are you here? why do you want to support laboring women? I had no idea how to answer this question. I hadn’t made the leap from learning about the physiology of normal birth to wanting to attending births. I was the only member of the class for whom this was true. Every other woman in attendance spoke eloquently about her desire to become a doula. They spoke of birthing their own children and how the experience compelled them to support women through this journey. As my turn approached, my mind scrambled: what’s a doula!!?? I don’t know why I’m here! When I opened my mouth to speak, out tumbled a self-conscious explanation about my preliminary thoughts about becoming a physical therapist…possibly one who specializes in pregnancy. I continued to talk, but my mind went completely still. The voice inside me, my higher self said, “You are a midwife.” Time stood still, and I felt, what I can only describe as a light bulb flashing in my head. It felt like a flood of knowing. Everything in me resonated, vibrated and tingled with the thought.
Despite the clarity and transcendence of that moment, my normal state of consciousness, replete with fear, self-consciousness, and doubt came rolling back in like the tide obscuring the shore. I dismissed my awakening as mere boredom with my mundane life, and tried to convince myself that becoming a midwife would be too challenging. I didn’t want all that responsibility. I didn’t want to work that hard. I like sleep, for goodness sakes! I thought perhaps I was turned on by the mystique of midwifery. I have always had an inkling for those things unfamiliar to most of society. I was, after all, a massage therapist. Today, massage therapy is enjoying a more mainstream reception, but even a short decade ago when I began my studies, this was not the case. I remember my sister, who is a physician, looking at me with disbelief and a flat, annoyed expression when I informed her of my decision to go to massage school. She pulled me aside one day, asking, “So, you want to touch people for a living!?” The horror and disapproval in her voice was unmistakable, “why don’t you just go to medical school?” I was undeterred.
I ignored the voice that had spoken so clearly, telling me I was a midwife. I was scared. Instead, I began to read every book about normal birth I could find. From Gayle Peterson’s, Birthing Normally to Penny Simkin’s, The Birth Partner to Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery, I simply could not get enough. I couldn’t talk about anything else (much to the exhaustion of many of my close girlfriends, who endured hours of conversations about birth). I thought about attending births, but where to start? Who would want me, a relative stranger, to witness her birth? I had absolutely no idea. So, I kept reading.
Within a few months, my friend, who had coerced me into taking the workshops with her, discovered that she was growing her own little one. She was planning a home birth, and she graciously shared with me every piece of information she found during her research. I became her prenatal massage therapist, meeting her once a week for bodywork sessions throughout her pregnancy. Witnessing her transformation throughout her pregnancy was miraculous. I fell in love with pregnancy, and the way it worked magic on women. Uncomfortable? Yes. Unpredictable? Yes. But also, raw and strong, and so energetically alive.
I would not attend my first birth until over a year after attending the workshops. Another year passed before I witnessed the second birth. During those two years, I waged an internal war over whether or not to pursue midwifery. I had many subsequent moments of awakening and knowing. I have learned that when the universe is serious about leading you down a particular road, the message will show up repeatedly, in many forms, but always with the same visceral sensations. I remember moments, riding the subway, reading about birth, and feeling my body start to shake, tingles beginning at the top of my head flushing down my face and through the rest of my body: such powerful energy moving through me!
Eventually, I became doula, dipping my toes into the birth pool to see if I could handle it. What followed was one of the most magical, blissful and intense periods in my life. For three years, birth, itself, became my textbook, and the mothers and babies I worked with became my heroes. I discovered a powerful birth community in NYC and met numerous women who continue to offer deep sisterhood and connection as I proceed on this journey. Throughout the nearly 50 births I attended as a doula, I gathered strength and stamina, and deep self-awareness, and finally felt ready to take my first steps toward midwifery. The process of my becoming a midwife is unfolding even as I write, and will be told in great detail in future posts.
As I recall the events that led me here, I realize that my awakening was my conception as a midwife. The seed was planted. The three years that followed were filled with exponential growth, the same kind of growth necessary for an embryo to metamorphosis into a human baby. I would not have survived had I taken the leap into midwifery from my workshop seat. I was not ready for extrauterine life. I needed time in the womb. I needed to grow.