In Praise of a Midwife

My one-week old daughter lives in a warm incubator located in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park.  How she got there is complicated – it involved a late-night stomach ache, soaring blood pressure and the sound advice of a Midwife.  The advice wasn’t very medically sophisticated – it amounted to a simple instruction to my partner, “go to the hospital.”  The role of our Midwife didn’t stop there. It continued into the delivery and even after as a depleted new birth mother recovered in the Maternity ward.  Although this article is based on an individual example, there may be something of use when thinking about how the health care system might be transformed on a national scale.

Fathers have, admittedly, an indirect relationship with their partner’s midwife.  Midwifery was re-birthed by a feminist movement of the 60s that skillfully reached back into the past and discovered the guides of a woman-centered approach to birth.  The woman is, rightly, placed at the center of attention and care.  Male partners are, for the most part, just along for the ride – an asset for birth support, but outside of the typically male role of being the center of the show.

Leave it to an emergency C-section to break down this dichotomy.  When I arrived at the hospital, I was immediately hit with the reality that I would be a father for the second time.  And it would happen in 30 minutes.  And the child would be born three months early.  And my partner’s blood pressure was so high it threatened to send her into a seizure.  In a situation like this, any person would be in a desperate search for allies.  And our midwife was there.

Our midwife acted as interpreter, coach and advocate all wrapped into one.  When a doctor or nurse arrived armed with the technical language of the C-section, our midwife provided explanations that two Master degree students in Liberal Arts would understand.  When my partner and I looked at each other searching for a space for a private conversation, the midwife cleared the room.  And when things moved too fast or too slow the midwife was the first to speak up – reminded the doctors that the operating table contained a human being.  She allowed us to be humans going through the process of childbirth instead of just patients being acted upon by medical professionals.

Once in the operating room, the midwife, my partner’s hand clasped in her hand, became something of a sports announcer.  She provided the play-by-play of the procedure, telling us where we were at and giving us the status of our child.  The midwife had our interests in mind to such a degree that she even reminded us to give her a camera to take a first picture of our baby.  She provided an oasis of normality and humanity in a situation that seemed to be spiraling in dangerous directions.

The lesson from our particular experience would seem to be a simple one – everyone needs a midwife.  The problem with fulfilling this simple idea is that so much of what our midwife did for us cannot be quantified in a way that suits a market economy.  What is the value added of taking a picture of a premature baby?  How much profit is there in holding a birth mother’s hand?  How is the bottom line in a privatized health care system helped by defending the integrity of humans being acted upon by professionals?

Our current economy system seeks to answer these questions – mostly in the negative.  Radicals interested in a new way of life would do well to learn the different lessons offered by our story.  Restructuring the health care system in America, making health care a public right is about more than just providing access to everyone through a single-payer or socialized health care system.  It is about putting human beings, especially in this case birth moms, at the center of the system.  Midwifes complete this task brilliantly.  If health care is indeed a human right, then midwives will be a critical part of guaranteeing that right.

When my daughter grows strong and emerges from her incubator, she will know that a midwife was a critical part of her entry into the world.

Billy Wharton is a writer, activist and co-chair of the Socialist Party USA. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Billy, or visit Billy's website.