Sunday Morning ~ Breaking the Taboo
Kulaula ndi kuzula m’mera. ~ Breaking a taboo is like uprooting a germinating plant.
~ Chewa proverb
May 23, 2021
I’m nearing the end of the course I’m teaching and find it hard to concentrate. I asked the students if it is the same for them. They nodded. I think about sitting on the balcony of my apartment in May 1978 preparing for a final exam. It was sunny and warm and I had blocked off the day to study. I read my scribbled notes in the spiral notebook, little bunches of illegible facts and phrases, and wondered which of them might be my salvation. Boston was beautiful in May: tulips, swan boats, falling in love, Red Sox. We’d gone through the big blizzard that year and as I tried to memorize all possible malfunctions of the pancreas all I could focus on was whether I was getting evenly tanned. I remember telling my roommate, “I hope it rains tomorrow or I am going to flunk this test.” Who can concentrate when the lilacs are blooming?
On Friday my class finished reading the history of Martha Ballard, a midwife in colonial Maine, based on her diary. Every day for twenty-seven years she made a journal entry during an era when few women could read or write. She was the first person in America to keep birth records. Laurel Ulrich took Martha’s daily entries and wove together a story of women’s lives when our country was emerging and at war with England. In her corner of Maine on the Penobscot River, Martha was healer and midwife for her community. It’s remarkable to read how she cared for the settlers with the herbs she cultivated. Her wisdom in attending families safely and with dignity is deeply inspiring. We read each chapter and discussed how it relates to where health care is now, how it evolved, and how women contributed so much with so little recognition or respect. Martha recorded delivering a baby on April 26,1812. She died a few weeks later of an unknown condition at the age of seventy-seven. In that period, elderly women were revered. Ageism was a century away.
The last month of her diary is mostly about her garden. She describes planting cabbages and turnips, feverfew and tansy. She had a seed bed on the east side of her house where she started the seeds she’d save from the year before. She then transplanted the seedlings into the garden, her families lives dependent on the harvest. She overwintered roots of cabbages in her cellar to plant in the spring, providing fresh greens early in the season. Clever, sustaining, nurturing. I asked the students how she knew which herbs would be helpful? There were no guides to herbal remedies. “Wisdom handed down from generation to generation”, they replied. It’s amazing how we’ve buried and uncovered that wisdom over the years, rejecting, then rediscovering without honoring those who already knew…
Martha’s descendants. were also healers. Clara Barton, who started the American Red Cross, was her great niece. Mary Hobart, one of the first female physicians in America, was her great great granddaughter. We traced how midwives were critical to maternal health care until they were nearly eliminated by our health care system in the 1940s. There were 20,000 midwives in the country in 1920. In 1960 there were 2,000. By the time I graduated from midwifery school in 1987 there were approximately 5,000. I remember our motto was 10,000 by 2000 in the big push to increase our numbers before the turn of the century. In 2019 there were approximately 13,000. Not a lot considering how many women don’t have access to a provider. The elimination of the profession was rooted in racism. The south had thousands of African American midwives, providing safe compassionate care with few resources. But there was money to be made and races to oppress and the male power structure took over maternity care and white supremacists made midwifery a white woman’s profession. None of it was about saving women; it was about enriching a dominant race. The plants were uprooted and everyone has been paying the price.
The students asked, that given how there are so many similarities with the power structure then and now, did I really think things would change for the better? I said I believed they would. The midwifery profession is recognizing it’s racist past; there is no going back to not facing it. I look at what I learned in history, how slavery was depicted as almost quaint, how heroes were white males and women only occasionally got best supporting actor. I never took a class about the history of women’s health care. My history courses were based on memorizing dates of wars that men started. I scribbled my notes in a flimsy notebook, spent weeks in the library to do literature reviews from books written by the dominant race. We’re not going back to that. I want to share my lessons learned with the next generation, consider midwifery as an option, hand them the baton, and watch them finish the race. I told them, “Just the fact you are in this class gives me hope that things are changing.” I tell the students to write their own stories for future generations. Who tells the story makes a difference. So yes, I do believe our voices can shape a better future.
Love to all,