Midwives of the Revolution

Explorations, analysis, and reflections on reproductive health, birth, and midwifery from a feminist, marxist lens

“Cool, you’re a midwife! So does that mean that you, like go to people’s houses?” Or: What Is a Nurse-Midwife Anyway?

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The number one most frequently asked question of midwives in casual conversation or upon doing the whole “what do you do for a living” thing has to be about home birth. This piece is to set the record straight for the less informed readers and friends out there who may have some interesting ideas about what modern midwifery is about. 

International Day of the Midwife is around the corner (May 5), so in preparation, I invite you to learn about midwifery so come the 5th, you can show off your knowledge and love for women and midwives!

1. The vast majority of midwives who attend birth do so in hospital or out of hospital birth centers.

According to the American College of Nurse Midwives, a 2012 survey showed that only 2.5% of all certified midwife or certified nurse-midwives (CNMs) attended births in the home. Home births comprise a tiny minority of all deliveries — according to the CDC, only 1.36% of all births were not in a hospital setting, and that includes birth centers. 

Now…if you ask me, there are probably loads of people who would do well in out of hospital or even home birth. And I would *love* to attend home births one day when I’m more experienced. But nurse midwives would be in real trouble if we only attended home births, since these are such a small number of the births overall. Now, we capture 10% of the deliveries, which is great and probably will only increase. 

Anyway! Most of us are employed by hospitals or physician practices, and you are likely to find us as an option for prenatal care or delivery if you look. We are often listed as “under” a physician — for instance, if you were to look under your medical insurance for a provider, you might not find us independently listed, but we might be in the office as well. 

Imagemidwifery today is not like this.

 

 

2. Home birth…

Studies have shown that for low-risk healthy women, home birth is as safe as hospital birth. We are not nearly as healthy as a society as we should be, so many women risk out of home birth. But as a feminist, I believe that women’s bodies are capable of normal birth (that’s how we survived as a species) and support the appropriate use of technologies that can help lower risk (like fetal monitoring or c-section when medically indicated). 

But for now, most women have their babies in the hospital, and that has its own risks in this country. But that is where you will find most of us midwives.

3. Labor

Unlike nurses working as RNs, most nurse midwives are not in a good position for collective bargaining. Once you get to the “professional” or health care provider level, you are likely to be in a position to negotiate personally for your working conditions, wages, and benefits. Many midwives do work for themselves in private practice in a physician office or doing home birth, but the question most people ask when they find out I’m a midwife is if I have to drum up my own clientele and run my own business. And the answer is no, that’s why I work for a clinic and not as a homebirth midwife. And even though I’m not in a position for collective bargaining, at least I have coworkers, someone to do billing for me, malpractice insurance, and an office I don’t pay rent on. 

4. One Day

I want to have hundreds of births under my belt before I venture out to be a homebirth midwife. There is so much to see, so many different experiences, good and bad, that I feel I need to be prepared to attend births in patients’ homes. Unfortunately, in this country, we’re not set up to get experience this way unless we want to have our own practice/small business. 

Image

 

I love this piece. Can someone please buy this for my office?

5. In the Meantime

What do midwives do? Of course, we attend births. We take care of (usually healthy, low risk) pregnant, postpartum, and lactating mamas. But what most people don’t realize is that we take care of women across the lifespan. Yes, most of us focus on gyne issues — family planning, sexually transmitted infections, menstrual or other reproductive system issues, menopause management, cervical and breast cancer screening and prevention. Others may train to do more advanced stuff like primary care management of chronic health conditions or do more complicated procedures like colposcopy or dilation and curettage or even surgical assistance for c-section surgeries. Much like other advanced practice nurses like our nurse practitioner or physician assistant colleagues, nurse midwives manage many of the same patients our physician colleagues may also attend to. We may consult or co-manage care with physicians for more high risk stuff (diabetes or high blood pressure in pregnancy, or preterm labor), or refer to physicians for surgical care like tubal ligation, fibroid removal, or cesarean section. 

6. Science and Stuff: Or, How We Practice

For historical reasons, “midwife” does conjure up the lay healer, and that experience or association is often degraded, even among midwives. Traditionally, the lay midwife’s science was her knowledge of her own experience and that of her mentors. She learned about the wisdom of the body from attending to women’s reproductive needs from contraception to abortion to birth and postpartum care. The advent of modern medicine and the revolution in obstetric care has in many ways contributed to loss of critical knowledge about normal lifecycle events. Though midwifery wanted during that revolution, it is back and stronger than it has been in decades.

Midwife means: “with woman.” We are present with the woman (or female bodied or female identified person) for everything. Midwifery means respecting the body and helping the body and mind be healthy. Midwifery draws on traditional knowledge of women’s bodies, and modern nurse midwifery is demands evidence based practice to wed experience with science.

Midwives, like providers in any care field, practice with a wide variety of styles. Wherever we practice, whatever our style, being a midwife is not about where we deliver care to women or their babies — the hospital, public health clinic, private practice, home — but about bringing our knowledge about and respect for women’s experiences and choices. Wherever we are, whatever our job title, we should be found working with women to achieve general, reproductive, and sexual wellness goals.

No, I don’t do homebirth (yet). Most of my day is not that glamorous…I’m usually in the office assessing women’s health needs and trying to help them manage issues like unplanned pregnancy, menstrual disorders, STIs, sad vaginas (see earlier post), alcoholism and smoking too much weed, parenting while father of the baby or boyfriend is incarcerated, depression, overweight and obesity, family planning goals, and pregnancy. Promoting breastfeeding, teaching about the menstrual cycle, and most of all, trying to get women to understand and love their own vaginas–and yes, the smell that comes with it!

And sex. Mostly, my day is spent talking about sex. That’s why midwifery is awesome. 

 

Author: queermarxistmidwife

I am a nurse-midwife practicing in full-scope (reproductive health and birth care) in a community birth setting in the Midwest. My clinical practice is an extension of my longtime commitment to social reproduction (a close cousin and friend to intersectional -- perhaps synonymous to, depending on who you talk to!) marxist feminism and reproductive justice activism. I write anonymously to protect my job security and make clear that these are my personal opinions, and to make clear that I am also a professional whose personal opinions can also be separate from the care I provide. (While I personally believe in abolition of the prison industrial complex, I still have clients that are cops/married to cops [etc.] and maintain respectful, compassionate clinical relationships with them.) I was called to midwifery circuitously, through my love for reproductive rights and an interest in providing abortion care. Then I met midwives and learned about the intertwined legacy of midwifery and abortion, and I fell in love with birth. In my practice, I have worked as a primary care midwife in a Federally Qualified Health Center and campaigned fiercely for true midwifery in a hospital setting rife with obstetrical violence (and lost that fight!). I have learned how to bring midwifery care from the belly of the beast in a large teaching hospital that functions in many ways as an assembly line of medicalized birth. I have also had my heart broken by my own midwife when I realized that my dream job in home birth was actually a nightmare in many ways. I have found healing through communities of midwives that work to support each other through the traumas of toxic healthcare workplaces. I am constantly learning, working on my personal and professional growth, and striving for accountability, particularly as an anti-racist that benefits from white privilege. Midwives of the Revolution is meant as a nod to Marx and Engles's writing on the process of social revolution, as well as an aspiration to be among the midwives fighting to transform the perinatal health system in the context of the struggles for reproductive justice. The social revolution it will take to win reproductive justice will have to involve birth workers, other health workers (unionized, and not; professionals and not), educators, abolitionists, environmentalists, and of course childbearing people and families. I love the way that Marx's collaborator Engles (a brilliant philosopher and activist in his own right) describes the dialectical process of childbirth, which, for me, also undergirds my commitment to bodily autonomy and reproductive justice. To paraphrase, some of the events that midwives are called to may be "violent" or forceful, like childbirth -- not unlike revolution and social struggle: The fetus is negated by the neonate, who can only be brought about by the force of childbirth. The midwife facilitates that transition, as force (or social struggle) facilitates the transition from one form of social relations to another. Scolding the philosopher Duhring, Frederick Engles defends the social force required to fundamentally transform society: "Force, plays yet another role in history, a revolutionary role; that, in the words of Marx, it is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one, that it is the instrument with the aid of which social movement forces its way through and shatters the dead, fossilised political forms." (Anti-Duhring, found here: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch16.htm#087)

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