There is a theme in my world travels over the past 30 years. I have searched my mind and heart to find words for the theme. I have listened to languages different from my own describe this “something” from the mouths of thousands of wimyn. The theme is captured by a beautiful Bolivian midwife attending an international conference in Mexico in 2000 regarding the future of birth and midwifery in Central and South America. “We know we must take our mothers to the hospital,” she nearly whispers with a quivering voice, “but where are the prayers?”
The theme? How wimyn preserve the fierce sacred feminine.
It is not enough to say that wimyn do most of the work in the world. For free. It is not enough to say they deserve revenue, respect, resources and rest for being the central glue that holds together the fabric of family and society. It is not enough to pat their butts, toss them a coin or threaten their safety to keep them doing what they do. The individual tasks can be outsourced, right? Wimyn do laundry, cooking, cleaning, childcare, chauffeuring, gardening, grooming. They keep traditions, teach language and culture, comfort the sick and sex-partner to the lonely. Whether they live in a palace or a hut, there is nothing that wimyn do that cannot be reduced to a “pay for services-rendered” relationship. But, there is “something” that they do that cannot be bought—not their work at home or in the workplace outside the home, not at birth and not at death. That “something” is sacred, selfless, unique, not duplicable, beyond price, beyond teaching and nearly beyond description. All wimyn know about it and they have plenty to say about it. Only they are usually so busy nursing the baby, tending the sick, stirring the pot, planting the seed and lifting up a prayer for a friend while they pack a toddler on one hip and sweep the floor with the other hand. They are too busy to write books or ballads about themselves.
Today as I flew home from teaching at a Midwifery Today conference, I was privileged to sit next to a 24-year-young, American-born, Puerto Rican womyn. She was flying from California to Pennsylvania to help a friend’s multi-generational family whose matriarch was in the hospital. “When you are down a pair of hands, you need a pair of hands,” she told me.
She had left her companion dog with her anxious Marine husband as a comfort. She would be gone 10 days and “I do everything for him, so he is anxious without me. The dog will help him stay calm until I get home.”
She was going to help do what every womyn knows she will do—clean, cook, wash clothes, tend the children and the sick—while she offers support and comfort to the weary. We talked for two hours about what it means to care, to help, to love, to belong, to be grateful, to be aware of the needs of others, to have a strong instinct and know how to use it. When she was 14 years old she helped her aunt have a baby at home before they could get to a hospital. “You were driving at 14?” I ask. “I was driving at 10,” she tells me (1). She never used the words fierce or sacred or feminine, but I do.
In 2017 I attended another international conference. India was an obvious and ideal choice for tackling the issue of human rights in childbirth. To be honest, I wondered why I was there. I went to support the great work of lawyer and world activist Hermine Hayes-Klein—who ultimately was unable to attend (2). I had spent some time talking with immigrants and Indians in Goa before the conference and in Hyderabad after the conference. In Goa we created a Red Tent experience where the wimyn spoke of their first menstrual cycles, their first experiences with sex, and their questions around the menopausal journey. For three days we met and wove together stories of maidenhood, motherhood and cronehood from our ancestors and ourselves. We sang and danced and drew and sat on yoni steams, while we whispered our secrets and found a lion’s voice within. In this passionate storytelling I heard once more the innocent nurturing female ideals for first encounters with sex and birth and a sensual, instinctual life. Their hopes and dreams were so strong and high, yet more often than not were crushed under the weight of rape and violence, both in getting the baby in and in getting the baby out. That is one of the powerful gifts of wimyn gathering together in a secret place to speak of the unspeakable: They heal (3).
My traveling companion while I was in Mumbai was Lina Duncan, a woman who had devoted the previous nine years to advocating and supporting the local dais, India’s traditional midwives. From this passion she used her natural talent for cyberspace networking to promote the upcoming conference, which aimed to bring justice, dignity, and respect to wimyn and childbirth. Lina was comfortable with the Indian languages, culture, food, clothes, and trash. Lina had a heart at home among the chaos, pollution, and noise of Mumbai. I followed her like a wolf pup.
She shared her street knowledge but didn’t hover over me. We rode in rickshaws, common trains and taxis with Ganesh on the dashboard. We used our ordinary feet to find our way from inner city slums to outlying permaculture forests. She told me to stay close as we hopped on the poor folks’ train with cars that separated wimyn from men. I stayed close. We sat on the floor near the open door, her hair flying in the wind while she explained to me the plight of the dais. I was familiar with every word.
I had used too many of my best years in courtrooms and legislative hearings, helping set up local, state and national certifications in an attempt to preserve traditional, apprenticeship-based womyn care in childbirth. Too many years—only to see everything co-opted in the name of moving midwifery forward into the modern health care system. I had worked in Mexico in all the same ways. In the end, the traditional midwife was replaced by a failed system of machines, drugs, power, and money. She was left to die off with no regard or respect for her wise ways or contribution to local community life. Birth was placed in the hands of professionals and hospitals. The few who struggled to keep birth at home were forced to follow restrictive protocols or return to working underground. Human rights was reduced to a checkbox on the chart forms.
One day Lina invited me to visit one of her most cherished Mumbai friends and dai, Jenab. Jenab’s home was in one of the many informal communities called slums—even by the residents. As we arrived, a herd of children rushed to greet us, pulling at our bags and laughing wildly. We meandered through the trash, being greeted and greeting a wealth of smiles from girls and boys who emerged and vanished from all directions. The makeshift dwellings reminded me of Mexico and the ingenious inventions from cardboard, planks, side metal or sheets, which are called home by their creators. We climbed and ducked and found ourselves at the entrance of Jenab’s one-room abode.
Leaving our shoes in a puddle on the outside, we held back the curtain and stepped into a palace. Every wall of the tiny space was organized. Along one wall was a kitchen, in perfect order including a tray and options for tea. Another was bedding and clothes while another contained personal items and altars of inspiration. We sat on the spotless concrete floor and began our storytelling. The doorway was pressed upon by children and mothers with babies at the breast and all manner of marginalized humanity.
“Come in; come in and see!” welcomed Jenab. Soon the children were climbing over her like little monkeys—up one side and down the other, while she held a baby on her lap. One mother had a set of young twins and a baby at breast. “All were born at home with me,” announced Janeb with joy. Her smile lit the room far more than electricity would. The people were joyful and eager to talk and ask questions. I was mesmerized by one of the baby girls, pants-free and trying to walk at six months. I watched Lina and Janeb as they talked like old girlfriends and made plans to help one of the babies who had been born with a cleft palate.
I watched and listened and fought back the emotions I always feel when given such priceless opportunities to see what real community/village midwifery looks like. I used to feel anger and sorrow that the irreplaceable value of these midwives is swept away—like our forests—under the weight of bulldozing ignorance. But this day, I fought back the emotions that rob me of enjoying the wealth of reality before me. I smiled back into the faces surrounding me and lighting up the world—my world, Jenab’s world, the world of the poor.
Bringing back the community midwife is not the same as placing a professional midwife in a community. A community midwife grows out of the community she serves. She belongs to it. She belongs and is beloved. To disrespect her, illegalize her, diminish her services; to release propaganda against her falsely, turn her community against her and think nothing of her value and wisdom inherited from ages and ancestors; to call her dumb and dirty is the path traveled in every country where modern health care seeks to professionalize midwifery.
Jenab, like traditional midwives the world over, is not just a midwife. She is the village healer. Who can replace her? Wouldn’t we be wiser to honor her, support her, learn from her? I fought back my emotions again and again and counted myself among the rich of this world to be sitting in her presence. As we made our way back to paved streets, Lina pointed out four outhouses on the edge of the slum. “Jenab called the city and negotiated for her community to have four so that the wimyn would be safer at night if they need to pee,” Lina acknowledged. I thought of the baby girl who had mesmerized me. I left her a hat I had knitted on the plane coming across the big waters from my little cottage in the woods to this far-off land. I closed my eyes and pretended that my hat was a halo of protection. I vowed to stand in solidarity with village midwives the world over. To write about them. To cry out—full-throated and unsparingly—in their defense. To become one of them.
After the conference I went to Hyderabad to visit one of the only two birth centers in India. There I met Vijaya Krishnan, who is a bright, caring, perpetual energy source of vision for better birth in India. She is the owner and a daily presence at a fully functioning clinic, which includes on-site lab work, a mini pharmacy and apothecary, educational classrooms, ultrasonography and a surgical theater. I watched her inspire both her staff (which is an interdisciplinary team of midwives, doulas, nurses, pediatricians, obstetricians, childbirth educators and housecleaners) and the families who sought her services from all over India and beyond. Everyone is irreplaceable, included and valued. You can learn about her vision and successful statistics of breech, twins, VBAC, postdates, and other special circumstances by finding her on the web or visiting her directly as I did (4).
I had the unique opportunity to shadow her for three days. We created a village prenatal where six pregnant Indian wimyn were blessed, fed, nurtured by a room full of positive birth stories, and adorned with Indian flowers and rituals. At Vijaya’s side I met Savita, pregnant with her second child, who remained persistently breech even at 43 weeks. During a private moment with Savita I heard the echo of concern that strong wimyn have when facing the pressures of medicalized birth. The physical is valued above the spiritual and often at the cost of the spirits of both mother and baby. This was Savita’s fear and drive to hold on and hold out for a natural birth for her baby.
Vijaya paced day and night, facing her own fears and pressures yet standing strong in her support of Savita’s right to birth her baby according to her own instincts, values, and traditions. I am forever moved by the power of wimyn in extreme circumstances to use creativity and brilliance, to birth against a modern current of fear and forbidden rights. Homebirthers and birthkeepers are most certainly the largest force of informal civil disobedience alive on the planet today. Savita birthed her second, breech daughter at 43 weeks into the arms of a loving, caring, brave Indian birth team in the city of Hyderabad where the nearby hospital cesarean rate is 80%. This is the power of one (5).
When I returned to Mumbai, I met with more wimyn—both in the ground slums and in the skyscrapers. The wimyn asked me excitedly, “Do you like India?” “To be honest,” I replied, grateful for the opportunity, “I do not like the entitlement of the men to undress me with their eyes, to grope my butt and breasts while we are crowded in public, to grab and shout at me as a piece of property, and do not like to hear the screams of young girls beat and attacked while I can do little to nothing.” We were silent together. “We are used to it from the time we are little,” they tell me.
But, one womyn who now works for a consciousness-raising NGO told me this story: “Sister, I came to see you today because I have heard so much about you and I thought you could handle my anger. I was on the bus yesterday and there is a line where the men are separated from the wimyn, but this man sat right behind me on his side of the line and reached around to grab my breast. I shouted at him and told the bus driver. The bus driver only told the man to move a little farther back. The men and wimyn around me said, ‘Why are you making a fuss?’ I was so angry. ‘What if this was your daughter?’ I shouted. Then I went back and beat the man in the face with my fist while I shouted at him and told him not to ever touch me again or any other womyn. He whined like a scared boy promising and saying he was sorry. But, he is not sorry. He will do it again and people will say nothing. But, he won’t do it to me,” she finished triumphantly.
She was right. I could handle her anger. We made ritual and mighty prayers for the rising up of wimyn throughout India and the world. The echo of her story, along with my own experiences, reverberated as I rode the rickshaw to my first international conference in India on human rights.
I surveyed the grand auditorium in Mumbai with four tiers of horribly uncomfortable-looking seats and wondered where I might perch myself for the next five days. I do not sit on chairs in my own home and certainly not in a conference. I was born small. My feet dangle like Goldilocks in the too-big chairs. My alternative is to sit Indian-style, but who wants to sit cross-legged in an uncomfortable chair with cramped legs for five days? I sat through the welcome, introductions and first international panel as if I were Goldilocks, legs dangling—a little girl lost in a big unknown world of male entitlement and female disregard. With the first break, I was determined to create my nest off to the side on a stairwell. Fortunately, a security guard noticed me circling like a nesting mammal and suggested I ascend all the way to the top where there was a spacious platform with a lofty view. Like in a fairy tale, I was in the perfect place, at the perfect time, with my perfect snacks and my perfect sitting mat with space for my knitting, computer, and yoga chants. From this eagle’s perch I met one of the most insightful and dynamic wimyn of my lifetime.
Dr. Prakasamma was small, with a gentle face and wise-womyn white hair. Her colleagues had graphic presentations with ample statistics and strategic conclusions. The panels were made up of leaders from the World Bank, World Health Organization (WHO) and International Confederation of Midwives (ICM), along with respected voices from India, Australia, the Royal College of Midwives and more. They delivered convincing arguments about how India should move forward regarding wimyn, health care, and human rights. Little was said of the dai—the traditional midwife of India—and certainly nothing was said of including them in modern health care stratagems.
Then Dr. Prakasamma began with a kindly voice that grew in strength and commanded attention. “I have given up on PowerPoints with graphs and statistics. I want you to look at my face and listen to my voice,” she began.
I sat up straight. I heard that “something” I have learned to recognize the world over. I grabbed my computer and started typing as fast as I could, trying to catch every herstorical word.
“I have left my positions in WHO and my Indian government positions and have given my life to advocacy and farming,” she disclosed unapologetically. With that one sentence she redefined herself separate from the list of titles following her name on the stadium-size, digital, double-positioned presentation boards hanging above our heads.
Everyone sat up straight, including her colleagues. “How have we made this mess of birth in India and our world?” she questioned aloud. “Birth is common in all life. Insect and elephant. The human feels important, which is why we are having this conference. How do we know the cows don’t have conferences? The crows? We want to talk about how we think and feel and talk about why we are important. We are social creatures.” In this way she invited each and all of us to think with her. To question with her.
“We are spiritual creations of incredible complexity,” she continued. “Birth and death are the answers. These are responsible for the peace or violence in the society in which we live.” Dr. Prakasamma spoke with confidence and from a lifetime of deep reflection and observation. She spoke about the human as an animal with greater capacity to think. She asked us to think more deeply.
She spoke about physics and described the relationship between matter and motion. She described how motion carried something unseen into matter. Her voice changed as she spoke of wimyn and labor. She spoke with emotion and passion.
“If we had it right we wouldn’t need this conference. The language around birth is the most violent in the world.” Her discourse carried us through many lands and many ages as she wove the word medicine into a story we knew all too well: the story of violence in birth. She spoke of “labor” and the images of “hard” work and how birth has become something to be managed. Using the language of medicine, she spoke of how we conduct the labor. She described how we have made schools and skills and tools to manage this process. She asked us to face that we have medicalized this “labor.” She described how we are taking what is inherently and incredibly complex and reducing it to something simple—so that it can be controlled.
“We have dehumanized the beautiful spiritual process.” She challenged us to see what we have done. She invited us to join a revolution in language for birth. “Home is the best place,” she announced, full-throated. “I do not shy to say so. We ask for the tiny things like privacy, respect, to be clean. We ask for crumbs.”
Her passions rose and my tears fell.
“Neurochemistry and physics are the most powerful at birth. We have reduced it to some simple mechanical action to be controlled. These are not passengers. Passive elements. They have will. We have focused on physiology and even that we have done only superficially. What about this new creation’s first impression? Bright lights and clanging sounds of steel! Not the song of the mother’s voice the creature has heard her whole life? What about theory of attachment? What is this baby attaching to? Distress? The panic of staff? The mother a zombie? I am wondering if these babies are going to be different. A society of zombies? How can it make no difference? This child needs a welcome! How can a government compensate us for this level of irreplaceable loss and abuse? This baby is a social being, not just a physiological being. This baby will become a future citizen. And what of the spiritual? I have no religion. But I am very spiritual. We want food as a baby. We want warmth. We want Mother.”
She did not pause. She did not apologize. She did not weaken. She became stronger and clearer and more challenging. I wrote quickly, blindly, for my eyes were blurred by an ocean of tears.
“There is a primary field of consciousness. From that we become a form of matter and we reach for love. Things have not changed. Things have changed only when we think in a totally different way. We must go beyond biomedical. We must think psycho-social-spiritual and then change the books. The schools. The policies. We have not yet even begun to help birth. WHO, white ribbon, ICM—none of them or their work will help. Our views must expand to include birth and death far beyond where we are.”
“We have done nothing to help birth. Absolutely nothing. All we are doing is taking what doesn’t work and making it bigger.”
She set the mike down. The room was silent. I knew why I had come to India.
I had witnessed the fierce sacred feminine of thousands of years in one small body.
- My Cherokee people live in rural Missouri and we, too, start driving by the time we are 10.
- Hermine Hayes-Klein is the founder of the Human Rights in Childbirth movement.
- I started my first wimyn’s group when I was 12 years old.
- Visit Vijaya and learn of her mission in India at healthy-mother.com or on Facebook at: facebook.com/healthymother.
- MorningStar. “Homebirth—The Power of One.” Midwifery Today, Issue 122, Summer 2017.