The Challenges and Rewards of Life as an Apprentice

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today, Issue 82, Summer 2007.
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I was standing in the shower the day of New Year’s Eve, debating on whether I was going to make a New Year’s resolution or not. Some years I do; some years I don’t. Hmmm, what do I need to work on this year? One thing that occupies most of my time, besides family, came to mind—apprenticing.

Becoming a midwife has been a distant dream of mine for years. I’m not sure if I ever thought it would happen, but somehow it is. Just after I had my third child, I decided to become more serious about studying midwifery and enrolled in Ancient Arts Midwifery Institute. I had planned to do book work for several years, with the intention of finding an apprenticeship when my youngest child was in school. Then, without even looking around, an apprenticeship opportunity basically dropped into my lap. I thought about it…a lot. My heart said to go for it, but my brain said “Is the time right?” This was not how I had planned it. My highest priority was having the time to be the kind of mother my kids need me to be and the kind of wife my husband needs. My children were six, three, and three months at the time. Could I do both and do them well?

I sat down with my preceptor, Eileen, to learn about the requirements involved. She understood my desire to be committed to raising my children while still learning more about birth. “I will support you in whatever pace you need, Christa. If you just want to do one or two births a month, that is fine,” she told me. After I heard that, I decided to go for it. I was so thankful and felt like the luckiest apprentice in the world to have the ability to set my own pace according to what worked well for my family. I had planned to start off slowly, but have somehow jumped in with both feet.

I’ve now been apprenticing for eight months. I attend two to four births a month and attend the majority of prenatals and postpartums, all home visits and some initial consults. I’m fortunate that my youngest can almost always come to appointments with me.

These last eight months probably have been the hardest, most challenging time of my life. My apprenticeship is harder than nursing school, harder than when I first got married and had to learn how to adjust to living with someone, harder than becoming a mother and dealing with breastfeeding problems and a colicky baby. I thought I was prepared for this. I did extensive research that included reading Becoming a Midwife, Life of a Midwife, and the Helping Hands workbook. I thought I had a pretty accurate idea about the life of an apprentice but truly, I had no clue how hard the adjustment would be. I guess some things just can’t be explained. Things have been different than I expected, to say the least. Nothing about it has been easy.

We’ve had some challenging births this year, including more than our fair share of transfers to the hospital. I’m getting used to integrating myself into the birth experience. I’m trying to learn how to let go of my idealistic views on how midwifery and birth should be. That’s been one of the most difficult things for me and I still have a lot of work to do there.

We usually go out and debrief after births but sometimes I come home and am preoccupied for a day or two (or three!). I haven’t figured out how to let go yet. Sometimes I come home and the tears fall. Sometimes I feel like I’m on an emotional roller coaster, like I have PMS around the clock. At times I get pretty discouraged by the obstacles I need to overcome. I sound like a laboring woman in transition as I say “I can’t do this; I don’t want to do this; why am I doing this?” Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with all that I need to learn and how much I don’t know…but then I remember back to the days when I didn’t know what Leopold’s maneuvers or the cardinal movements were and I’m amazed at how far I’ve come. I laugh at the time I tried to use the fetoscope backwards, putting the forehead piece on the client’s belly. I love the warmth I get from holding a laboring mom’s hand and whispering in her ear “Yes, you can do this,” the knowledge I have that birth really works, the pictures and thank you notes I receive in the mail. I enjoy the chai tea at births, the breakfasts and dinners out afterwards, the laughter, jokes and hugs we share.

I find I’m adjusting to life on-call although I really miss the spontaneity of being able to take off for the weekend (my stress reliever!). Being on-call with children so young is hard. It’s also tough when I’m not home in the morning and my husband has to work early. How many babysitters can you call at 5 am? Childcare arrangements for births are always in the back of my mind and juggling the sitter schedule gets crazy at times. I’m always looking for people who may be willing to take my children on short notice and at odd times. I’ve dealt with having to send each child off to a different sitter’s house. I’ve had to go directly from one birth to another. Many times I’ve stayed up all day to take care of my children after being at a birth all night. I’ve worked long hours at night and tried to stay awake for prenatals the next day. I try to balance taking care of my 11-month-old while listening and getting the most I can out of appointments. It’s getting harder the older she gets, but I’m fortunate that my mentors are really good about helping with her so that I can practice my skills.

I’ve had to totally change my way of thinking. Frequently there are no clear-cut steps to take, no manual to follow. I can’t just memorize and follow a protocol anymore; I really have to think about what’s going on. I’m trying to become more flexible and adaptable. I’m hoping that I develop some sense of intuition. I pray on the way to each birth that God will open my heart and my mind and give me the skills and knowledge that I need. I’m adjusting to the change in our financial status that comes with paying for gas, hiring babysitters, and buying books but not getting paid, and the loss of most of my salary as a nurse. I’m dealing with limited control over my own schedule, having to cancel the plans I make and being called out at inopportune times. I need to always plan ahead so that if I get called to a birth my husband isn’t scrambling to get last minute homework done or find a snack for my son to take for 21 preschoolers. Apprenticing has also stressed my marriage. I’ve asked my family to make a lot of sacrifices so that I can do this. Sometimes I question whether I really want to be a midwife. Do I want this kind of stress in my life? I’ve also seen the competitiveness and gossip that occurs in the midwifery field and wonder why we are making this more difficult for ourselves. Why can’t we support each other more, work more as a team and have less rivalry?

I’ve dreamed about midwifery for years, but sometimes the dreams are better than the realities. I’ve tried to quit a couple of times but somehow I just can’t. I’m either too passionate about it, too determined, or too stubborn…or maybe a combination of the three. I try to keep in mind something a newer midwife, Stacia, said to me: “Every woman who does an apprenticeship or begins a career as a new midwife is going to face a difficult time, whether it is the death of a baby or struggles with your partner or kids over being on call. It is envisioning the future that will help you to get through. If that future is really uncertain, it can be hard to continue to sacrifice.”

I thank God every day for two people in my life who have been invaluable to me throughout this and whom I love dearly. My husband, Mike, and my wonderful friend and the senior apprentice, Wendy, listen patiently during my meltdowns, reassure, support, encourage and motivate me and keep me moving forward. I am so fortunate that I can talk to them about whatever’s on my mind. They are both worth their weight in gold to me.

I’m thankful for my children, who still ask with excitement in their voices “Is there going to be a baby born today, Mommy? Can you bring home pictures?”

I am thankful that my preceptor, Eileen, has given me the opportunity to do this, is kind and generous with our schedule, listens to my sometimes differing opinions and has the patience to show me how to do something time and time again until I have it down. I’m fortunate that both Eileen and Wendy have taken me under their wings, sharing everything they know with me, guiding me and even trying to protect me.

I’m thankful to our clients who welcome me into this special time in their life, who teach me how to really listen, how to wait with patience and what being a midwife is all about. I’m thankful that I have family and friends who say “Sure, drop the kids off” even though it may inconvenience their day. I’m thankful for my BirthNetwork friends who remind me that I am doing this so that birthing mothers can have better, safer, more satisfying birth experiences. I’m thankful for my local and online birth friends who answer my questions, share their tips and tricks and have welcomed me into their circle with open arms. I feel really blessed that I have such a fabulous support system and such a broad base of wisdom and knowledge at my fingertips.

A couple of months have gone by since I originally wrote this article. I’m amazed at how much I’ve grown and changed in that time. I can’t pinpoint the exact turning point, but I finally feel like things are falling into place. This is becoming my new “normal.” I no longer think I might become a midwife; I know I will. I don’t have the doubts I had before. I feel confident that I have the ability to learn what I need to in order to do this. I’m enjoying it more and more. Sure, at times I get frustrated at the challenges, but they no longer seem insurmountable. I know this journey will just serve to strengthen and shape me into the excellent midwife I will someday be. I’m so glad to be one of those women who puts her life on hold for a few hours for the honor and privilege of supporting a woman through this life-transforming experience called birth.

About Author: Christa Bartley

Christa Bartley is a happily married mother to three. She is an RN, on the board of directors for BirthNetwork National (www.birthnetwork.org) and apprentices with Woven in Love Maternity Services (www.mich
iganmidwife.com). She can be contacted at RNChrista@gmail.com.

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