Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Midwifery Student's Paper

My Calling, My Heart

Growing up, I loved babies, but there was a mystery surrounding pregnant women. I think I was too naive to notice their growing bellies. To me a baby just appeared; I did not know from where. I am the youngest child in my family so I never saw my mother in her childbearing season of life and we never lived near family so I never saw my aunts or other female relatives in that season either. Our church culture was such that it was not obvious to me, as a child, how God perfectly planned and made women to carry and bear children. I simply do not remember ever seeing a woman go through her childbearing year or having a relationship close enough to a woman in her childbearing year for me to understand the process of new life through her example.

Growing up, I was the little girl who played with dolls. Most of my friends loved toy horses or Barbies but I cared more about taking care of my babies. Consequently, whenever I saw a real baby, I was severely interested and fascinated. I remember thinking they were so adorable and sweet and innocent. It horrified me when they cried and I wanted to comfort them.

With babies came mommies and I remember the comments and, sometimes, whispers that told of how a baby came into the world. I readily gleaned the fact that it was quite an expensive process considering those gleaming white hospitals which must have taken a lot of upkeep. The OB/GYN lingo that went with "doctor" seemed to hold a lot of weight with those new mommies, too. One thing I knew for sure was that it involved a lot of blood and pain, but as long as there was a healthy baby, the process was secondary.

As the youngest in my family, I always wanted younger siblings. Because of that longing, I planned and looked forward to having my own children. But whenever the process was mentioned, I became so confused. How could such a beautiful, blessed baby be the product of such an excruciating and merciless process? In my young mind things did not line up. How could the loving God I knew place that determined fate on all womankind? If that was my future with children, I quickly thought that maybe adoption or no motherhood at all was for me instead.

A few months ago, I found a journal dated to March 2006. I was fourteen at the time. Among other things, it said, "When I grow up, I want to be a dressmaker or a midwife." I find this to be a complete mystery because I wrote journal entries so rarely I have no remembrance of keeping them. It also brings many questions to mind because I do not recollect moving from the concept of labor and birth as a medical event to an entirely different scenario with a midwife. I remember my mother speaking highly of midwives but not actually having them with her during labor and birth because they were off duty. Maybe that had an impact on me, leading me to think midwives were one of the answers. I will not ever know.

When I was fifteen, I stayed with a woman whom I had never met for a little over a week. I think my mother talked to her on the phone once and we e-mailed back and forth a few times before I stayed with her. I had things planned to learn from her and different reasons for visiting, but when I look back, she taught me some other important things quite unintentionally.

This woman has three children and twenty-four grandchildren (and counting!) of whom she speaks with pride. Her grandchildren are all rather young at present but her children are scattered over the world leading inspiring lives for the Lord. As usual, I cannot remember how the conversation came about, but she told me quite enthusiastically of how her children and grandchildren came into the world. She is a magnificent storyteller in the first place, and always has a captive audience. Her birth stories were no exception. One of her daughters loved to use a birthing stool, while, for another, she recounted how her daughter put her arms around her husband's neck and moved her hips in circle motions and all used midwives. This woman even caught several of her grand-babies. Where were the shiny hospitals, lab coats, blood, and pain? They were not mentioned to me. I was only impressed by how highly she talked of the process, how it drew couples together, and how rewarding it sounded. There was trust and hope. I was supposed to be learning some practical skills like cooking, sewing, and gardening that week, but I was blessed even further by the impressions I had from her stories. I did not realize the impact these stories had on me. I just knew I liked what I was hearing compared to what Hollywood and the culture in which I lived had always told me.

Gentle birth without fear and violence was new to me but I knew it was what I wanted. I wanted it for my sister and those I loved most. I mourned for those who experienced less than this. Without knowing it, I thought every woman deserved such a birth. It was the best. How could I want less for anyone? But how to become a midwife? How did that work? What exactly did they do and how did they learn it all? How could I go through the process myself so others would gain the same vision and have a gentle, safe birth without fear? I did not have the answers to anything, but I knew it was a calling I had to answer. Who else was going to do it?

From the woman who introduced the idea of gentle birth to me, I was given a name. The name was of a woman who was a doula (I had no idea what that was yet!), childbirth educator, and aspiring midwife. I did not know much about her but I e-mailed her anyway, hoping she could answer some of my questions.

Doran e-mailed me back and filled in a lot of blanks for me. She told me about a couple of Christian programs that train doulas and childbirth educators. One of them was Charis Childbirth. I was impressed by the clear ministry goals that they had and the option to study further in their midwifery program following their doula and childbirth educator program. A lot of the other certification programs only trained doulas and childbirth educators. I was pretty sure I should just be a doula but had not completely cancelled out of my mind the idea of being a midwife. I wanted the midwifery option "just in case." What is more, Charis seemed to be the most organized in how they presented the material and I got the impression their academic criteria would be challenging, which appealed to me.

Doran also recommended several books I could go ahead and purchase now but would also benefit me in any future program. I remember receiving several of those books for Christmas that year and being excited yet overwhelmed. How would I learn everything and, more importantly, how would I ever be able to look at a placenta without feeling queasy?! I did not know how this could be my calling if I still found it to be rather gross. That was about six months before I was to graduate from high school and I prayed, first, to find a school that was academically challenging and taught from a Christian worldview. My second prayer was to attend a birth before graduation so I would know I could "take" what birth entailed. I see now that is one naive prayer to have prayed!

Two months later, with my parent’s encouragement, I contacted Charis, received a warm welcome from the founder, and scheduled a phone appointment. Kristin answered my few questions and I knew God had answered my first prayer. This school was for me and I was so excited about starting in the fall after I graduated.

As other things changed in our lives, we also had worshiped with a new pastor and different congregation than from a few months before. The congregation was made up of mostly young families, and our pastor and his wife were expecting their third child. Many other families were expecting children. I noticed this because it was so different from our previous congregation, although I do not remember thinking anything of it at the time. I was graduating that year so most were curious about what I would be doing after high school. Midwifery was my answer (still did not know a doula and midwife had very different roles), but I never went into too much detail as I was still uncertain myself.

One day at church, Lisa, my pastor's wife, came up to me to say she and Mike had been praying about it and felt lead to ask me if I wanted to come to their baby's birth. She made it quite clear I did not have to come if I did not want to, but she also understood I was uncertain about my calling. She offered that if witnessing her baby’s birth would solidify my intentions, she was very willing to have me. She was genuinely thinking about God's calling on my life and wanted to help me in this way. I never told her about my calling. I only told her I was considering it, and I respect her so highly for being led by the Spirit and acting on his guiding. If she had not, I am not sure if I would be writing this today as I may have never set out on the journey to be a childbirth professional. My second prayer had been answered and I knew God had made it quite clear what He wanted for me in the near future. Now I knew it was up to me if I was going to trust and act on it and step out in faith.

I am an analytical person. I love it when things are black and white. I did not know how I was going to be a doula and childbirth educator, but I knew without a doubt it was what I was supposed to do. He had answered both of my prayers! At the time, I could not fathom why anyone would want me at their birth, know why home birth was such a wonderful option, and certainly could not imagine getting up in front of people and teaching a class! I was reminded that God equips the called, He does not necessarily call the equipped.

This quote from Ian Thomas comes to mind, "The Christian life can be explained only in terms of Jesus Christ, and if your life as a Christian can still be explained in terms of you- your personality, your willpower, your gift, your talent, your money, your courage, your scholarship, your dedication, your sacrifice or your anything- then although you may have the Christian life, you are not yet living it."

With laying out my “fleece” and having both of my prayers answered, I knew I had to answer the call. He had answered me so clearly. How could I not do the same? When I think I cannot write another word for that never ending paper or read another paragraph with yet more words that I do not understand, I am reminded that God called me to this in the first place and promises blessing. Knowing that my life is not dictated by me or what I am equipped with in the present, is such a comfort to me. Nothing is impossible and the blessings are unfathomable.

With that understanding under my belt, I started the doula and childbirth educator program in October of 2010, just as I had planned. I enjoyed it immensely, and was challenged and encouraged by my coach and what I was learning. I still could not fathom teaching a class or knowing everything in my books but, as I was reading a biography about a missionary named Lillian Trasher, I was moved by her childlike faith. She was a missionary to Egypt and opened the very first "faith" orphanage there. She did not get very many donations but lived each day by faith. This excerpt is from a time in her life when her health was declining because of her self-sacrifice in putting all of the orphan children before her own needs:

As she lay in the hospital bed, thinking about the toll that being Mama to so many orphans had taken on her body, Lillian had no thoughts of self-pity. She knew she would have given more if she'd had any more to give. Her walk of faith in Egypt reminded her of the fable that Egyptian children learned at school. It was a story about a boy who had to cross a vast desert. There were no watering holes along the way, and so, whenever he needed a drink, he had to stop and dig a well with his bare hands. After he had dug several of these watering holes, his hands were cut and bloody, but he went on. When he finally got to the other side, he was completely worn out.

A month later this boy watched as another boy walked out of the desert. The second boy had taken the exact same route as the first boy, but he looked fresh and happy, skipping along with a huge bunch of flowers in his arms.

"How could you cross the desert and look so fresh and cool?" the first boy asked. "And where did you get those flowers? I didn't see a single one when I crossed just a month ago."

The second boy answered. "Oh, the way is beautiful. There are many small wells brimming with cool water along the way, and around each well there are flowers and shady bushes. It was easy to cross. Didn't you see them?"

The first boy looked down at his scarred hands and smiled. He knew that his own suffering had made the desert an easier place to cross for those who followed after him.

Like the first boy in the story, Lillian was content knowing that God had called her to dig holes in the desert and that many flowers would bloom as a result of her toil. (page 161-162 from Lilian Trasher: The Greatest Wonder in Egypt by Janet and Geoff Benge.)

Lillian went to Egypt not knowing what her plans for the future would be. She went feeling God calling her there but her future was not guaranteed safe, comfortable, happy or secure. She went because He was leading her there and she never looked back. The hymn written by John Elliott based on scriptures Romans 11, Isaiah 40 and Job 41 and Jeremiah 23 reminds me of Lillian and her life. I believe, the only way she could begin a life so uncertain must have been because she had these truths planted so deeply in her heart:

“Oh, the depth of the riches, the wisdom of God

How unsearchable are His ways.

How profound are his judgments, so high above our thoughts,

And His pathways no man can trace.

For from Him and through Him,
And to Him are all things!
To Him be glory forevermore!
To Him be glory forever!
Amen! Amen! Amen!

Oh, the depth of the riches, the wisdom of God
How magnificent are His ways.
Who has been His advisor And who has counselled Him,
All He gives us who can repay?

Oh the depths of the riches, the wisdom of God
How immeasurable is His grace!
How unfailing His kindness, so far removed His wrath,
And His mercies are new each day!”

From this hymn and Lillian’s life, I have realized that even when we are not sure why we are called, it is still from Him and He still has a purpose for it. Truly, His ways are unsearchable and when it is for Him and through Him and to Him, He reveals himself in ways that we cannot even fathom. I did not know why I had this calling at the time, but it is amazing to see His hand and His purpose behind it now.

The last part of my journey might be rather predictable. It seems to have been obvious to everyone except myself. I was asked often in those first few months of my studies why I was going to be a doula and not a midwife. I do not remember having a very good answer except I felt more comfortable in a supportive role that could take a back seat during birth if necessary. It was just comfortable knowing I would not have excessive amounts of responsibility. As I went along in my studies, my coach honestly asked why I was in the doula program and not the midwifery program. She noticed all the work I was putting in and did me a favor in telling me that a lot of that work could go towards the midwifery program.

I had finally started getting comfortable with the idea that I was to be a doula, and then she brought up the question I was avoiding! I wanted to create a network of doulas so hospitals and crisis pregnancy centers in my area would be able to provide doulas for every mother who wanted one. I really thought that would take some time and effort! Teaching childbirth classes at the same time seemed quite a bit for me to handle. I also saw myself training other doulas after a while, and the suggestion I instead go on to be a midwife really put a wrench in my comfortable plans! Becoming a doula did not seem easy to me, but at least I had a plan to reach my goals. I had it all figured out, or at least I thought I did.

With my coach's prompting and encouragement, I realized she was saying exactly what I needed to hear. I did not want to hear it at first, and I think I just laughed at the idea. I asked some questions to be kind, but the more I asked, the more she told and the more I realized she opened up something in my heart I did not know was there! During that time I came to realize, even in Virginia, there were huge pockets without access to a midwife who was trained in out of hospital birth. Virginia is rather kind to midwives compared to other states and I really thought the situation was better than it is.

The more I came to face reality, I also admitted to myself that the United States is one of the richest countries in the world and if a "good" state is like this, I could only imagine what other states were like, let alone third world countries. Starting out, I was moved because nobody else was stepping up to the plate to be a supportive person in the form of a doula or a teacher in the form of a childbirth educator. How could I not step up to the plate when I had the resources, the time, and now the knowledge that there simply are not enough midwives?

So, after being in the doula and childbirth educator program for all of 5 months, I switched to the midwifery program with hesitation but enough conviction to not look back. My main concern was that I would not be able to offer doula services as some women might need because of the responsibilities which come with being a midwife. I also wondered if I would be able to offer childbirth classes like I felt my community needed.

Through time, I have come to realize I will be able to be a doula and teach classes for some time while I am a student midwife. I have also come to understand that as a midwife, I will be better able to teach and support than with just a doula and childbirth educator certification. Training others will also be easier to make the ripple radiate even more. The idea I will not be working alone anymore but with a new generation of aspiring midwives and doulas excites me. It also gives me hope because with more hearts beating for the passion of one goal, the easier and more fulfilling the crossing will be for so many expectant moms, and more healthy babies will be the result.

When I switched to the midwifery program, you could say I jumped in with both feet but did not actually know the pool that I jumped into. I had fairly serious hesitations but knew that from a financial standpoint, it was better to start the midwifery program sooner rather than later. I also knew that I could switch back to my first plan if I really felt I was going in the wrong direction. Logically, there was no reason for me to not be in the midwifery program, but I still doubted this new responsibility and adventure was to be my own personal future. Unlike the doula program, I had not laid out a “fleece” to confirm the steps I was taking. I do not know what made me say “yes” then but I know now why I say “yes” each day. The more I study from a historical perspective, the more I know about midwifery and its history. As I learn, I come across midwives of the past that seemed to have done their work as a duty, responsibility and passion. In A Midwife’s Tale, Martha Ballard is pictured and her life is drawn out and described through her diary. This is one expert:

"What took Martha Ballard out of bed in the cold of night? Why was she willing to risk frozen feet and broken bones to practice her trade? Certainly midwifery paid well, at least by the standards usually assigned women's work. Martha cared about her "rewards," and she kept her midwifery accounts carefully. Yet money alone cannot account for her commitment. Nor is it enough to say that serving others was her way of serving God. She interpreted her work, as all of life, in religious terms: God rescued her from the spring flood, sustained her through difficult deliveries, preserved the lives of mothers and children, and gave her the strength to continue her work. (Even such a prosaic end-of-the-year summary as "I have Lost 42 nights sleep the year past" was a kind of spiritual accounting.) Yet religious faith is also an inadequate explanation. Midwifery was a form of service and a source of material rewards, but even more than that it was an inner calling, an assertion of being. Martha Ballard's specialty brought together the gentle and giving side of her nature with her capacity for risk and her need for autonomy.

The Fathers who fetched her in the black of night leaned on her skill, offering her the command of their horses and bedchambers, bestowing lumber credits and teapots for service. The women who circled around her at the height of travail respected her caring and sustained strength. The women who reached for her in the anguish of travail extended her motherhood in their own. Martha Ballard needed her patients as much as they needed her."

I have come to learn, just through Martha and her life, that while midwifery could have been seen as an income alone, it was also a commitment she dutifully kept to her community around her. This commitment she had cannot be described as anything less than a calling, a calling that revealed the “gentle and giving side of her nature” and one that she kept as a service toward her Lord. Through her diary, it is also revealed that while doctors and other educated people came into her community and attended women in birth, she still kept on with her calling until her death. I have to ask what made her continue through her entire life even when others clearly thought their new ways were better than her traditional ones. I have realized that midwifery, while an occupation to most, is also a clear cut state of mind and way of care. It differs from all other occupations that look for the potential pathological problems in women’s health. It sees pregnancy and birth as a normal life process and seeks to help instead of hinder this process by keeping unnecessary interventions statistically low. With this trust, comes respect for the woman and her unborn baby. The sanctity of human life goes hand in hand with this respect and it is obvious to me that Martha Ballard’s calling was to this trust and respect just like my calling is to the same. I feel as though I have just seen the tip of the iceberg as far as midwives of the past. Truly, aspiring midwives have a high standard to live up to that cannot be lowered.

One of my favorite authors said this about fellow believers, "They relinquish their lives and hand them over to their beloved Mighty Commander. This isn't how their journey on earth ends; rather, it is how their journey begins. Their dreams, their ambitions, their plans are given up for the dreams, ambitions and plans of their Beloved." Indeed, this is exactly how my journey began. I was drawn to midwifery because of child-like romanticism but it has grown into a passion because of the knowledge I have gained through the doula and childbirth educator program, midwives of the past and facts of the present. He answered the prayers I had in the form of a “fleece” and has prompted me to trade my ambitions for His upon entering the midwifery program. In the end, all I can say is that the dreams, ambitions and plans of my Beloved are so much more exciting, exhilarating and fulfilling compared to my own. At the time of this writing, I have only been in the midwifery program for one month, am working on catching up on assignments since switching programs and have still only seen one birth in my short life.

"I die daily" and look forward to what the future holds! All so "THAT I MAY KNOW HIM, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings…” (Philippians 3:10)

Bethany Stricker

Charis Midwifery Academic Course

Coach - Susan Oshel

Module 1: Writing Assignment: My Heart

April 5th, 2011

(Bethany has come to our home several times as an "intern", learning about sewing among other things, and we are delighted that she is studying to be a midwife! May God call many other young women into this service for His glory!)