In celebration of the International Day of the Midwife, I wanted to share this article which came to me via the women’s health wisdom e-news!
A Song, a Baby, the Congo, and a Meeting
by Jodilyn Owen
In Helen Reddy’s anthem to female power, I Am Woman, she sings about standing toe to toe while “I spread my loving arms across the land.” Standing toe to toe is a boxing term, which draws to mind the picture of two people squared up to each other, facing each other directly from the tips of their foreheads all the way down to their toes. She is singing about embracing the world with love from a place of power and strength that is deeply rooted. Driving home from work in the early hours of a rainy Seattle morning this song came on the radio. I focused on the road ahead but my arms and hands had all of my heart-attention. I wondered if my appendages could possibly reach lovingly across the land? Only a few hours prior to this drive, my hands had received a new life into this world. I could still feel the warmth and softness of a wet baby girl born to a mother I had come to know and love over the course of several years. I could feel the mother’s hands on top of mine as I laid the baby on her chest and slowly eased my hands out of their space leaving the mother/baby dyad in a quiet ecstasy.
As a midwife, by the time I am at a birth I have worked for hours and hours with families. I know mom’s dreams and her fears. I know her body and her baby. I know her favorite songs and what makes her cranky. She knows my stories and my affection for newborns. My work is about developing meaningful, joyful relationships. My work is about watching women become mothers. When I look at women, I see their power, strength, and fortitude. I know what is lying dormant inside of an expecting mother and relish the process of working with her while she uncovers her greatest truths.
The particular birth that had me thinking warm fuzzy thoughts about my hands moved me in a very new way. The birth of this baby girl stunned me in its beauty for a very simple reason: For the entirety of the pregnancy, this mother of three boys had pined for and talked about the little girl she just knew was growing within. She had no proof of it. She spent her pregnant days sending dreamy pink wishes to her belly. She spoke of shopping excursions and cute shoes, dresses, and ponytails. We planned ahead so that at the birth we would leave the discovery of the sex to mom and dad.
The baby was born quickly with no drama whatsoever. As I saw the head and face I thought to myself, “Oh my, that is a distinctly feminine face. If that is a boy, he is very pretty indeed.” The baby slipped into my hands, and I swooped it up to mom’s chest. There, I felt her hands cover mine and just as quickly replace mine against the heat of that new body. I left the two of them to their quiet, multi-sensory discovering of each other. After she took a deep breath and sighed, mom looked down and lifted one of the legs to see for herself about the sex of this baby. She yelled out, “Is it? Is that!? It’s a vagina!!!” and with that she let out a yelp of joy akin to very few I have heard in my life. Her husband and mother-in-law joined in and her midwives, myself included, gave laughs and shouts of delight that matched the mother’s. We cheered this little baby girl as if she just won the big high school game!
What I came to realize a few hours later is that this baby was born into a loving room full of people cheering about the existence of her vagina—the very base of her biological self, her second heart. Her vagina: a source of pleasure and purpose for women who stand with power and move with love. I drew my breath in awe over the fact that she was received in such a meaningful way and wondered about a life based on the celebration of girl and womanhood. I wondered about a society where the essence of the female self is cheered from the deepest place of honor and joy.
When I arrived home I took a long look at my sleeping sixteen-year-old daughter and sent her silent celebratory thoughts. She is the essence of standing with power and moving with love. I learned a lesson from a new mother about how we celebrate our daughters that morning. Watching my own daughter sleeping that sound teenage-sleep, I could see her all at once as she looked those first moments I held and sniffed her, and appreciate all she has become and will one day be. I saw the unfolding of a young woman discovering her own truths and kissed her forehead with deep affection for the hard work of it all.
This summer I will spend several weeks overseas working with birthing mothers and new babies. When I was searching for the right clinical placement I came across the opportunity to work in The Democratic Republic of the Congo. The woman who places volunteers explained that they do not need birth workers as much as they need mothers for the hundreds and hundreds of young girls, right around my own daughter’s age, who are used as weapons of war. They are raped by soldiers with AIDS and left with babies, HIV, and fractured families and tribes. Many of the girls will not live, and even fewer of their babies will survive. There are women all over the world who are deprived of everything we think of with regards to being a woman. They are denied education, shunned, neglected, raped, or even sold into slavery. My thoughts about celebrating girlhood and women suddenly felt luxurious. What life do we lead that we have the time to even talk about these ideas of the higher self?
I was actually looking at my daughter while this phone conversation occurred. I felt a profound loss for all of the mothers who were denied the opportunity to squeal with delight over the birth of a daughter and for the pure miracle by which my own daughter arrived in my life. As I watched her walking through the house I realized that the best shot we have of women all over the globe coming into their own health may lie with the whole-hearted celebration of the women around us. If we are to get our loving arms across the land, we must first embrace ourselves and our daughters from a place of education and celebration. The potential for global women’s health rises exponentially if we raise girls who know and understand their own womanhood. Girls who embrace their most basic biology and their highest spiritual selves from a holistic perspective. Girls who are so familiar with womanhood that they will recognize it wherever they travel, regardless of the packaging. Girls who create healthy and meaningful friendships and partnerships with the men in their lives. These are girls who will grow to create a world where all women will have the luxury of celebrating each other.
I made a commitment to pause and celebrate the women I come into contact with daily: at work, at the market, while cheering on my kids as they play basketball. It doesn’t take more than a glance and a thought and bit of intention. It is a silent and internal act. At a recent meeting with eight other midwives, I caught myself smiling for no apparent reason. I thought to myself, “You must look like a dork with that goofy grin on your face!” and pulled myself upright, straightening out. I realized I had been silently scanning the room and celebrating each woman there unconsciously. I had the yelps of delight from that birth coursing through my head as I looked at each woman there. I relaxed back into the chair and inhaled deeply, let that grin slide back onto my face and cheered for the women I love, the women I work with, and the women I share this earth with.
Jodilyn Owen is a wife, mother, midwife, seasoned doula, and educator who has attended hundreds of births. She specialized in newborn assessment and observation through the Brazelton Institute of Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital. Jodilyn has been published in Midwifery Today and the Women’s Wisdom Circle, and has spoken at Bastyr University for Natural Medicine and two Trust Birth Conferences. She will spend this summer working with mothers and babies on the tiny island nation of Vanuatu.
Note: If you’re interested in working in the Congo or connecting with organizations that do, go to NGO Abroad.