a balancing act

December 7, 2008 § Leave a comment


i am not a primitivist.  i do not romanticize the past simply because it was before now.  i do not believe in some edenic before when all went perfectly.  but i do have to ask the question: how the fuck did the human race propagate itself before doctors, obgyns, or certified licensed and insured midwives?

let me put it this way: what does it take to call yourself a midwife?

i imagine that for most of human history midwives were just women who had given birth or were the sister or the mother or had been around for birth and knew the rituals, the songs, the calls that that community had developed around the emergence of new life into the world.  there was probably a well of community knowledge that could be dipped into held by various men and women in the community.  maybe some oral traditions.  maybe some drawings that acted as a guide and a recorder of history.  there were probably some herbs that were known to be helpful.  probably folks had watched other mammals give birth.

and they knew the particular women giving birth.  knew her temperment, her favorite foods, what her moods looked like.

when most ‘natural’ midwives say that midwifery is a calling found around the globe, i think this is who they have in mind: the mother, sister, aunt, cousin, grandmother, neighbour who came by and helped out.  the woman who had a knack.  who was in charge of gathering and drying the herbs.  the woman who took it upon herself to care.

this is the way birth is happening in a good many parts of the world right now.  as i type.

and yet the same ‘natural’ midwives will tell you how their craft is ancient and wise and sacred, based on the knowledge and lives and experiences of these aforementioned women, would be offended if that woman moved into their community and called herself a midwife.  hung a shingle outside her door.  and started attending births.


now i believe in getting all the knowledge that you can about your craft.

but according to the international confederation of midwives:

A midwife is a person who, having been regularly admitted to a midwifery educational programme, duly recognised in the country in which it is located, has successfully completed the prescribed course of studies in midwifery and has acquired the requisite qualifications to be registered and/or legally licensed to practice midwifery.

when i went to the website of the international confederation of midwives i was excited to see so many brown and black faces.  but then as i was doing some poking around i realized that this organization is one more example of the reasons that identity politics is hollow.   the organization was founded in the uk.  the top 4 positions in the organization: including, president, vice-president, secretary-general, are all based in the west.  the board members who are chosen by their world region: east africa, west africa, asia/pacific etc are obviouslythankfully much more diverse.  and most importantly the organization follows a restricted western model of midwifery.

what if this definition became mainstream?  oh right it has.  and how many women who would have called themselves midwives have been disenfranchised by this definition.  innumerable.


so right now i am working on this manifesta for outlaw midwives.  it is slow going.  mainly because i have more questions than answers.  its just me and my intuition and a pen and the internet.  but then last night, after a couple of glasses of wine, i realized that most of my questions were irrelevant.  i was worrying about making sure that midwives would be able to get the level of apprenticeship and training that they needed whether or not they chose to become certified.  but that isnt the point.  the important thing is to be able to provide the information and resources that folks need so that they are able to make their own decisions.  thats it.

outlaw midwives are not the authority.  they are not the expert.  it is that lack of authority and expertise that is their greatest strength.  outlaw midwifery is not about being the community expert on birth.

i am imagining a model of a doula at an unassisted birth.  in which the outlaw midwife knows what she knows, does not claim to know more than what she knows, and follows the birthing persons leadership.  similar to the way that when i was doing international accompaniment work in war zones, i didnt know everything, i barely knew anything, but the one thing that i learned quickly was that my role was to follow the leadership of the one i was accompanying.  they always knew alot more than i did.  if my opinion was asked for, i gave some suggestions, didnt make promises in terms of the outcome.  and there were days that were intense.  there were days when we had each others’ lives in our hands.  there were days when i didnt know if i had said the right thing.


tom fox was killed a couple of years ago in iraq.  he, along with 3 other western men, was captured by a militant group and held for months.  and then his body was found.  i was one of his anti-racism trainers on nonviolent witness and accompaniment before he worked in iraq.  the last time i saw him, he had just returned from a tour.  we hung out at a bar, drank beer, and made jokes.  quiet quirky guy.  when i heard he was captured and killed, i wondered if i could have said something that may have helped him save his life.  i know i wasnt the only one questioning the training that we gave.  but he went into that war zone the way that we all did: eyes wide open.  he knew the risks.  he believed in the work.  would most people have chosen to do what he chose?  no.   but he did.  and that is ultimately all we need to know.

it is a joyful sad knowledge.


the questions i have been asking myself were coming from a realization that i believed in training and apprenticeship and that my experience had led me to realize how difficult it is to receive that training and apprenticeship when doors are slammed in your face/communication is cut off because you are from a marginalized community.  that there is an oppressive hierachy in the birth world and access is not solely (or even primarily) dependent upon your passion, your ethics, your intelligence, your dedication.  my suggestion would be to get all the training that you can.  read everything you can.  talk to everyone who will talk to you. develop a strong intuition with your own body, your own mind, your own life, with the universe.  never stop learning.  the more you know, the more that you can offer.  but dont deny folks the ability to be able to choose for themselves what kind of pregnancy, birth, and motherhood that they want.  explain to folks what you know and what you dont know.  and let them make their decision.  and most importantly remember that loyalty to a mother’s choice is 99 percent of being a midwife.

its not about natural vs.  cesarean.  it is about empowerment vs.  trauma.

many of the midwives that i know have a great store of knowledge.  i just wished that they used that knowledge to empower women rather than to judge those women’s choices and expressions.


i was reading an email from a man who was accompanying his partner through labor.  he wrote saying that the labor was going slowly.  that night was a full moon.  i had a vision as i sat outside watching the moon that he needed to get down on all fours with his wife and just hang out there for as long as she could handle it.  and even when she couldnt do it anymore and needed to be alone, he could go in the next room and just stay on all fours.  it seemed kinda crazy.  i didnt know him.  he was just on a listserve. im not a birth expert.  i felt this strong urge to tell him anyway.  i didnt do it.  didnt want to be that crazy lady with crazy full moon visions purporting to know more than i did.  a couple of days later he wrote and said that his wife had had a c-section, the baby had been malpositioned.  she was feeling good about her choices.  i was happy for her.  but i felt sad too.  i probably should have shared my lil vision.  i probably should have given them the choice to decide if i was a crazy lady or not.

i am not a primitivist.  i am probably a lil crazy.  i am not a certified midwife.  i am not even a certified doula.  i am a lover and a fighter.  i am an outlaw midwife.


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