Pregnant with my first child, I stepped into the birth community in 1986. Since that time I’ve been involved in many birth communities and have served in many different roles. Some communities, like some families, are nurturing, healthy, vibrant, and whole. Others are deeply dysfunctional—full of competition, discord, and fear. Why are some birth communities constructive and others destructive? The reasons are complex, and I will not pretend to have the whole answer here. I am an intuitive and observant people-watcher, however, and thus have learned a great deal from traveling and participating in the birth communities I’ve had the opportunity to encounter these past 14 years. I hope that what I share will be of value to those who are seeking to build a stronger community for the sake of families and the future of midwifery.
Make room at the table. In order for any type of community to grow, there must be a welcoming presence in that community. This is so obvious that it seems absurd to have to say it, but the truth is that many birth communities are stunted in their growth because of a lack of welcome—especially toward those who are trying to find their way in as educators, doulas, and midwives. I have been a part of communities where competition, gossip, and “turf wars” have reduced people to rubble. Once this behavior starts it spreads like cancer and is so hard to stop! Before long the bitterness spills over and the birthing families in the community are affected as well. There is nothing uglier than interviewing a midwife and hearing her say derogatory things about another midwife—but in some communities this happens all the time. Besides the damage done to the individuals involved, this type of behavior is extremely shortsighted. How can midwifery survive (and thrive) in the future if midwives “eat their young”? The antidote to all this is when someone in the community says “enough!” and decides to make room at the table for others. Even if one midwife is willing to stand alone and welcome others, the tide of selfishness and negativity can turn.
Each one teach one. When my daughter Essie was three years old, we were sitting at the dinner table with my parents. My dad adores his grandkids and is a real joker. His nickname for Essie was “Dr. Ruth,” because of her tiny stature and enormous self-assurance. When he called her “Dr. Ruth” that evening, Essie asked him why he called her that. He answered, “Because you know everything.” She paused for a moment and retorted, “Well, I don’t know everything, but I do know a lot!” At the age of three my daughter knew that even though she didn’t know “everything,” she still had a contribution to make! We midwives would do well to learn this lesson, too. In order for our birth communities to grow strong, we must value everyone’s contribution. Hierarchy has no place in the women’s way of wisdom. The newest doula has unique gifts to share along with the most experienced “granny” midwife. We all lose when certain voices in the community are silenced. Furthermore, no matter where you are on that journey, there is always someone whom you can help and encourage with what you know. We need to do away with the mentality that only the most seasoned and experienced midwives are able to teach. We don’t have to know “everything” in order to pass on what we can to someone else. Remember, the wisdom we have belongs to the women, babies and birth—who teach us all.
Nurture the nurturers. As midwives, we give so much to so many. My mentor Valerie El Halta says, “Midwifery will take all the love you have to give,” and she’s right! Midwifery is a life poured out in love and service—but who is nurturing the midwives? In order for our birth communities to be strong and whole we must extend the same kind of nurturing to one another that we give to the mothers and babies we serve. Midwives who are nurtured don’t “burn out” as readily as those who serve without support. How do we nurture one another? With words of thanks and encouragement; with backrubs, flowers, and homemade bread; with babysitting each other’s children and laughing at each other’s jokes—and the list goes on and on. We must celebrate each others’ beauty and uniqueness for our own sake and for the sake of the community. And the good news is: It’s contagious! Dare to nurture the midwives in your community and watch the ripples widen. Before long other women will be drawn to the warmth, and the circle will grow. Building and sustaining a strong, supportive birth community is part of every midwife’s work. We need one another, and the families we serve deserve the best we have to offer. Let’s agree to work together to make room at the table for everyone.