The First Lesson

Today's post comes from a guest writer who is dear to my heart. Mani was the student midwife for my previous pregnancy, which ended in a way no one intended it to. I called her Mani-calm-my-heart. She is young, beautiful inside and out, and full of wisdom.

Not long after Glow in the Woods launched, I know I wanted to see Mani write something here one day. I felt that her perspective of her experience of birth/death/loss from that of a student midwife will be so valuable to all.

I have written and deleted this article at least twenty times. When Janis asked me to write something for Glow in the Woods, I said yes immediately. It is an honor to be allowed into this space, and one I don’t take lightly. I hope that as you read, you know that I realize my words are pale and weak. Please forgive me. They are all that I have.

If I tried to make a list of all the reasons I decided to become a midwife, it would stretch for miles. Each reason I could come up with would only lead to more reasons. To condense them into something less time consuming to read, I’ll boil it down to the broad specifics. It’s simple. I love pregnancy. I love birth. I love women. I love babies. I wanted to provide care that was both comprehensive and kind. I was called.

In the beginning, the lessons seemed simple. First, I learned to chart. I learned how to take a woman’s blood pressure and pulse. I dipped urine, checked for swelling, measured fundal heights, and took fetal heart tones. Moving forward, I learned to palpate a baby’s position within their mother’s womb with my hands, how to distinguish heads from bottoms, anterior from posterior, and how to estimate fetal weight. I drew blood and sent in lab specimens. I studied, and when I was done with that, I studied some more.

About a year into my apprenticeship, just as I was gaining confidence and feeling sure of myself, I started participating in the care of a new client, Janis. I didn’t know it then, but the real lessons were about to begin.

One of the things I most love and value about midwifery care is the amount of time we spend with our clients during the prenatal period, and the relationships that are forged during those precious hours. As the months ticked by, and Janis grew round and ripe, I was not just becoming acquainted with her vital signs and the contours of her belly, I was becoming acquainted with a whole woman. I was growing to love her, and growing to love her baby boy who kicked and squirmed under my hands at each visit.

The midwife/client relationship, when healthy, is like all other healthy relationships, in that it is symbiotic. Midwives do not simply care for their clients, providing support and information, they receive, as well. As we teach our clients, they are teaching us. One thing I have found to be consistently true in every area of my life, is that the best teachers are often the ones who are willing to take you to places you didn’t want to go.

There is no training in the world that will prepare you for the moment when everything changes. There is no course of study, simulated scenario, or book that can prepare your mind and heart for the time when a pregnancy that has been textbook perfect ends with a dead baby. The only teachers who can convey the necessary lessons in this arena are the mothers and babies themselves.

The primal part of a person, that part which does not give a damn what you do for a living and what your responsibilities entail, will insist that you feel this pain, that you grieve the loss of this baby, that your heart shreds under the steely blades of a grieving mother’s keening. The primal Self is wise. It understands this need, and if we don’t honor its call, it will do everything in its power to force the issue. To disconnect from this part of ourselves is to become something less. Less than human, less than loving, less than empathic. A lesser care provider.

Meanwhile, though not living, there is still a baby. There is still a birth to attend, and still a client and her family who need you. They deserve full attention. Every ounce of love and compassion that you have must go to them. There will never be anything more important than serving this family during this time, and doing it with your whole heart. While you can’t let go of the primal, grieving Self, you must keep it in check, and find appropriate outlets for it. It is a balancing act, because families who have had a baby die deserve to have a care provider who shows emotion. They deserve to know that their baby mattered. On the other hand, it is not about you, and you cannot make it about you. This is solely about the family you are serving. This is their baby, their experience, their pain.

It has been over a year and a half since I attended the birth of Janis’s beautiful son, Ferdinand. I had the privilege of knowing her son with an intimacy that not many people did, listening to his heartbeat and feeling him kick, during his living months inside of her, watching his birth, and then holding him close to say hello and goodbye. I am so very humbled and honored by both of them for granting me this gift.

Since then, I have continued to walk with Janis. Not as a teacher, not as a student, just as a woman walking with another woman. Sometimes I feel as though I am stumbling along the path, tripping over roots and rocks in the dark, but I am grateful for every step. I know I am lucky to be walking with her, regardless of the terrain. Last month, Janis once again honored me by inviting me into her birthing space. I was present as a doula and friend to help welcome her youngest daughter, Lyra Phoenix.

It just so happened that the end of my time as a student midwife closely coincided with Lyra’s birth. The first lesson is now complete. The first lesson is that we know so much less than we delude ourselves into believing we know about birth, and life, and death, and we must never stop seeking, must never believe ourselves to have all of the answers. If I am to take anything from this lesson, let it be that I remain open and receptive, humble, and in servitude to mothers and babies. The first lesson is a lesson of love.