Sunday Morning ~ Leaving Footprints
Ukayenda siya phazi; ukasiya mlomo uupeza. ~ If you leave a place, leave your footprint; if you leave your words, those words will find you.
~ Chewa proverb
February 28, 2021
I have said many times that I felt like I was born into the wrong century. I longed for a simpler time when healers used what resources they had, families grew their own food, horses were used for transportation. I collected books about pioneer women, loving the stories about making soap, foraging for edibles, spinning yarn and knitting sweaters by firelight. I romanticized all this as a kid, never considering the dying in childbirth, frigid, heatless nights, or skinning a squirrel for dinner as part of the idyllic dream. All the discomforts or dangers seemed like fun. The close knit family would weather it together with compassion and resilience! They’d always agree on how to cope, share the work willingly, nary uttering a cross word! This fantasy clearly emerged from my early readings of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but deep roots grew from it. My readings, though they included the hardships, did not penetrate my romanticism. It seemed a long wonderful adventure and those discomforts among the travels just part of the story, transient and worth it.
But the story was so incomplete.
Working as a young midwife, I started looking at it a little differently. I imagined women in labor on the prairie, their closest neighbor two miles away, their husband out hunting for weeks at a time. I imagined the howling winds and loneliness. Childbirth is scary enough when you’ve got a full support team around you. How did those women cope? Many of them, I learned, went stark raving mad. I started realizing women had little say in family decisions, no one to advocate for them, kids were hungry and exposed, they lived on cold dirt floors. What did I find attractive?
I’m older and wiser. I’m trying to balance my good memories and fantasies with learning the true history. I loved the story of Martha Ballad, the Maine midwife in colonial, revolutionary times. Her diary talks of long and sometimes dangerous travels to homes for births, making herbal concoctions, growing vegetables, fertilizing them with manure from her pigs. She stayed at homes for days to nurture women after the birth, often receiving pay in sugar or cornmeal, tea or flour. She wove with her daughters and nieces. She had quilting bees with women neighbors and friends. I ate it up. Her stories of getting to births at night on horseback were the ultimate. She knew her profession, a calling, and went about it without question. I wanted to be her. I wanted to weave my own dishtowels and grow all my own food. I wanted to saddle up my horse and take off for a distant home to attend a woman in childbirth. The adventure was too alluring. She wrote about falling through ice while crossing a frozen stream. Her diary was filled with stories about getting to the birth, as if that were more important than the birth itself. She documents the weather every day as life would be completely dependent. She could only attend the birth if she could get there, so, of course, weather was important. We’re so removed from that, even with increasing extremes.
The history of midwifery in this country has been focused on Mary Breckenridge, another romantic figure, who started the Frontier Nursing Service in Kentucky in 1925. I found the notion of living in the mountains, carrying supplies in saddlebags as I took to the trails absolutely fantastic. Oh, the romance! Attending to poor families in dire straights, making their lives a little more comfortable and safe. Yes, I thought that would have been just the right fit for me. But, I learned recently, turns out, Mary Breckenridge was a white supremacist. She was the granddaughter of a vice president, daughter of a congressman, and was educated as a midwife overseas where midwifery was an integral and accepted part of the medical system. Midwives existed in the United States then, thousands of them actually. But they weren’t recognized because they were not educated as part of an accepted, segregated, regulated system. Black women, slave women, immigrant women, indigenous women were attended to by midwives of their communities. But they were prohibited from accessing our medical system, therefore had no formal credentials. Their outcomes were better, their infection rates lower, as were their maternal and infant mortality rates. Yet, once Mary Breckenridge established the first school of midwifery in Kentucky, immigrant and black midwifery students were prohibited from attending. The Shepard-Towner Act , ostensibly meant to improve the public health of communities, proceeded to eliminate community midwifery and local healers altogether. Despite their valuable role with non-white, non-anglo-sexton populations “untrained and uneducated” midwifery was systematically eliminated. Their years of clinical work and apprenticeship was deemed worthless. Their role in delivering care to women who had no other option was crushed.
I’m part of this system. I am white and had access to higher education. I had opportunities afforded me that so many traditional midwives have not. Our system set it up that way and I benefited. When I was in Peace Corps and worked with Malawian midwives, I felt a calling to do this. I watched and learned from those women, their deep connection to their community, their skill in emergencies, their excellent outcomes with so few resources, though they had a fraction of the formal education I had. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to come back here and save women from a system I felt had gone all wrong.
Midwifery schools are small. I was only one of seven graduates in my class. There are few schools in the country and the cost is prohibitive. Multiple studies show improved outcomes when women are cared for by trusted caregivers. Midwives have consistently filled this need. Yet, in 1921 there were 100,000 midwives, and in 2021 there are 11,000, our white system eliminating most of them.
I’m looking at the legacy of leaving footprints and how that affects future generations. I’ll start teaching a class at the local college in a few weeks. I’ve taught it before, the history of midwifery, but this time I will have a better perspective. I hope this may lead, in a very small way, to a new path and new footprints on sturdier ground.
Love to all,