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Midwifery Herstory

Since the beginning of time women have been part of the birthing process. Mothers, sisters, aunts, neighbors – WOMEN would gather and play a role in supporting a woman during this journey. Of course these roles may differ in certain regions but we know women have always supported women in birth. When we learn this, how can we not ask how we got to the place we are today. Where we leave the comfort of our homes surrounded by loved ones to birth in a cold bright unfamiliar room with strangers. The change started when women began to invite men into the birthing process and as we dive into this history it is questioned if this was an informed decision at all.


Taking us all the way back to prehistoric times, midwives did not exist the way we understand them today. The mother of the birthing woman attended as the midwife and most women knew enough to help. Some especially helpful that were called to be present more often than others which is probably how midwifery came about. I feel it’s also important to note that birth, sickness, and death all took place in home and midwives were a part of each of these processes in different ways. The role of a midwife was highly respected in communities for this reason.


Still in Early American history birth belonged to women with rare exceptions of men in the birthing space. In the colonial era of America doctors were only called to births when something went terribly wrong. It was thought that doctors brought “science” and made birth more safe for women. The attitude towards birth began to shift in the 17th and early 18th centuries as medical involvement in birth became common in the cities eventually leading to a decline in the number of midwives in the communities doctors gradually took over. By 1755 professional physicians were regularly called to “hard labors” and the rapid development of forceps gave doctors a technological advantage. In one reading they stated “Male science had diverged dramatically from female tradition.” Of course all of this led to a decline in midwives in the 19th century as obstetrics was developed and tradition was lost.


During these changes Male midwifery was also underway as doctors learned midwifery, going on to publish books and start some of the first medical schools where physicians would be taught the practice of midwifery. As we did gain a greater knowledge of the anatomy, unfortunately women's bodies were beginning to be viewed as machines (sound familiar?) and the spiritual aspect of birth was ignored. Even though graduates were admittedly unprepared to support women during childbirth, obstetrics replaced the word midwifery in education.


According to the article Doctors Gradually Start Taking Over Birth, by 1900 approximately 50% of births were attended by doctors. The history of midwifery in a way, began to become lost. Birth was a private occasion where women were ensured safety and dignity. Although doctors were taught less interference with the birthing process was best, their practices were highly interventive. Many of which included forceps, bloodletting, ergot, opium, ether, and chloroform. Dr. Chandler Gilman, professor of obstetrics at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in NY said “the less done, the better”. Which goes without saying these highly interventionist births were frequently harmful to mothers and babies.


Learning the history of midwifery has brought me to one conclusion, something that is embedded deeply into those who understand the importance of noninterference of the birthing process. Birth needs to be brought back into the hands of women. As we look at the maternal and infant mortality rate that has only risen with the numbers of inductions and cesareans we can see first hand that this high level of interventions is greatly hurting the birthing process and moving further away from the traditional wise woman model of care. YES these tools are there for when they are needed but they should not be routinely used as they are today.


I have so many visions for the future of midwifery, with my main thought being that midwives become the main birth attendants. Women are capable of choosing care for themselves that feels right for their journey no matter what that looks like, but when we bring birth back to midwives as a foundation we will see a shift in pregnancy, birth, and postpartum outcomes all around. In other places around the world where midwives are the main caretaker for women during pregnancy and childbirth the maternal and infant mortality rate is lower. Midwives protect the natural process of birth and help return things to normal when veers away. They bring women to the center of their care and help integrate the spiritual aspect of this huge transformation in a woman's life.


Another vision that I have for the future of midwifery would be that our cultures become more accepting of traditional midwifery and that this option is more prominent in our society. With this, more ceremonial practices would be brought back into women's journeys into motherhood which would further support all around health. We know home is the safest place for a woman to birth with a normal pregnancy. More families would have this awareness and the opportunity to explore this option. Overall I would love to see more midwives which of course would be needed for this radical change and more midwives who practice autonomously which brings me into my next hope for this new paradigm.


Straying away from the licensure of midwives would be another win for the future of midwifery. We would be able to turn back to female traditions, make midwifery autonomous again thus helping women have full autonomy in their birthing decisions. The practice of midwifery has been and will continue to become governed and regulated. The hope of midwifery being a profession that is respected by allowing it to be controlled is counterintuitive.


In conclusion, becoming an autonomous midwife I hope to be a part of the future of this radical change that is taking place. To be part of the mission of Indie Birth has so far been the greatest journey and awakening in my years of doing birth work. The Sanctuary and Center for Sacred Life will be such a beautiful start to this new way of loving and celebrating women during this transformation and change birth for the better, therefore changing the world.

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