Midwives of the Revolution

Explorations, analysis, and reflections on women's health, midwifery, and politics from a feminist, marxist lens


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Transition

It has been so long since I have put anything in this space. So much has happened over the last year for reproductive rights, workers, immigrants, healthcare access, the political mood and movements, and my personal and professional life has not let me keep up with it here. Though I have had my best work-life balance of my professional life so far over this last year, I’ve had a hard time squeezing in time for writing about my experience or my thoughts about what’s happening in the world.

A lot of what is hard is that my dear mother has really been on my case about protecting my professional identity, and about being ever so careful about how I present myself on the Internet, in spite of my attempts to remain as anonymous as possible here. It’s incredibly hard, as someone who has so many damn opinions and for whom my profession is a major passion of my life, to figure out how much I can say about what I think about things, while preserving myself professionally. Are there enough disclaimers in the world to cover me and protect me from losing my job, or offending my clients, or not getting some job in the future? Probably not. So I hold a lot of ideas in my mind and wrestle with what is appropriate enough for me to put into print.

Hopefully this is.

Well, I’m doing it. I’m transitioning. A very welcome, but also a terrifying change, from intrapartum care only in the hospital to not only full scope (GYN and OB) care but to homebirth. I have been working over almost the entire last year mainly in a very large private academic medical center that I previously thought of only as my city’s “baby factory” because so, so many people deliver there. I have also been moonlighting in a similar role in a small Catholic community hospital in my neighborhood that primarily serves Black and Latinx patients. These were both very welcome changes from the major challenges I encountered at my previous position, and my life over the last year has allowed me to settle into a fairly reasonable routine that works well with my family and activist lives.

But now my dream job has started, and my world is being uprooted, but for the better.  in the most delightful ways. champagne

Why am I making this change? I’m giving up a 36 hour workweek with hardly any stress about my job, for being on call 20 days a month for a position that I care about deeply and find spiritually satisfying. I’m giving up about 100 miles a week in bike commuting (often schlepping my daughter on the bike trailer) for having to always be close to my car and driving all over a large metro area to I can get to labors and births in a timely manner. I’m giving up a position that allowed me to make a midwifery stamp and positively impact my patients during their labor, as I provide physician extender service as part of a resident team, for one in which I will partner with a team of midwives to develop relationships with our clients, who have invited us into our homes for the most intimate moments of childbearing. I’m giving up watching how the medicalization of childbirth, while “evidence-based” and in highly skilled and talented hands, so often leads to much higher rates of complications than one should see in otherwise healthy people, for a birth setting in which emergencies can still happen, and the operating room or assisted delivery or complicated resuscitation is still a 9-1-1 call away.

Sure, I’m giving up some personal comforts (and admittedly, proximity to emergency help), but I am leaping into what I am hoping will be a tremendous adventure that will train me to be so much more skilled in what I care about: normal birth with healthy people. It’s a tremendous honor to be seen for my skills and potential, and to have been chosen for this practice. There’s only one way to know if this is my perfect fit, and it’s to try! So, here’s to doing my best at trying!

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How I Got Here; Or: Why I Am a Nurse-Midwife

Now that I’m here, I’ve jumped through the hurdles of getting my degree, passing boards, getting licensed, and becoming employed, I thought it would be nice to reflect on how I got here. It’s easy to take for granted sometimes, now that I just wake up and go to work every day. But I’m doing what I set out to do! I’m midwifing! So…how did that happen?

Back in the day…

My background is in languages and literature. I studied English and Spanish in undergrad. Like many undergrads, I had no idea what I would do when I grew up…Like many women, I thought I was “bad” at science and hadn’t really taken myself seriously in that regard. When the nursing shortage blew up in the mid-2000s, my mom suggested I look into nursing. I didn’t really think it was for me. I had the old-school pre-feminist movement (and very middle class) idea about nurses as doctor’s handmaidens and couldn’t see myself doing it. But then I started looking into it, and taking my prerequisites for nursing school (adventures to tell of another day), and more and more found it seemed like the right next step for me. Hands + heart + science + possible unionism + healthcare activism…that I could get into.

I originally planned to be a WHNP. When I started nursing school, I had never attended a birth, and I really didn’t know much about midwifery. I liked the idea of working with women, but I didn’t want to try to get into a program/field that I wasn’t as passionate about. I knew folks who were planning to be midwives, and they were excited about Ina Mae Gaskin and doulas and home birth. But I was in my mid-twenties, and no one I was close with had had a baby yet, and these topics were remote from my experience. The abortion world was more my bag, and I knew that as a WHNP, I could possibly train to provide early aspiration abortion or at least do lots of cool family planning work.

Trust Women Tiller

Then, I fell in love with birth and also realized that, as I later saw expressed beautifully in the documentary After Tiller, trusting women and being pro-woman/pro-abortion was midwifery. The issues of birth and family planning and abortion are inextricably linked. And, from a practical standpoint, I realized that it made sense for me to provide pregnancy and birth care as well as the other family planning and gyne care I would do as a WHNP. Why hand off patients to another provider to attend the birth, when I could actually be the one to be there for the whole lifespan? So, during nursing school I asked the women’s health department if I could switch to midwifery. They OK’d me.

An Alternative Route

For a variety of reasons, my path to practicing midwifery has not been traditional, at least how it’s done “typically” by CNMs. According to tradition, an RN works in labor and delivery, then goes to midwifery school, then works as a CNM. When I finished my nursing program, nursing jobs in labor and delivery were hard to come by. I got one interview on a hospital unit but did not get the position. I applied to dozens of others. I also had put out my feelers for work in abortion care and managed to get a position through a student colleague connection, at the abortion service in the county hospital.

My first nursing position was a nightmare, but it paid the bills for my first semester of midwifery school and gave me valuable insight into the lives of women seeking abortion in fairly desperate situations. I then got a scholarship so I didn’t have to continue working as a nurse during my program, but it required me to complete it in two years. I babysat for a wonderful family and watched their family grow throughout my graduate studies. Then, as I was completing my final semester of my masters program, I landed another position in abortion care, which eventually turned into a broader family planning nursing role. That is the last job I held until beginning this current job.

After I passed my boards (got certified by the American Midwifery Certification Board), I again looked for jobs around my city. This time around, I had more interviews and got a lot more interest, but still, employers and even my mentors questioned if I could work as a full-scope (meaning: catching babies, not just working in the office) CNM without having worked as a nurse in labor and delivery. Some suggested that I should swallow my pride and try to get such a position and then try again in a year or two for a full scope  job. It was a full six months between my initial interview and my start date for the position I landed, and there were times that I considered this option. Luckily, this position came through, and I got to do things the way I originally thought I could (more or less).

Acceptance

What is midwifery? Is it only possible to be a midwife if you’ve been a nurse during hundreds of births, many of which were probably complicated or high risk? I don’t think so.

It’s hard being one of the handful of people who graduated from programs like mine, that allow you to graduate without having to work labor and delivery, having to prove that you belong and that you can hang with the more experienced nurses. But I am not alone, and I’m grateful for others who blazed the trail before me — whether they intended to or not.

Midwifery is a whole lot of things.* True, the only births I’ve attended are the ones where I was doing the baby-catching (or doing labor support in a few instances). I haven’t seen a ton yet. My career is young. I am humbled by all I have to learn. But I have also worked in women’s health for over six years, and have learned compassion and to not judge women’s lives and choices. Midwifery is trusting women, it’s listening to women, and it’s being present with women. You can’t learn that from a textbook or demonstrate that on a board exam, but you can show it in the type of care you give. I am confident that, as one quarter of women in the United States will have an abortion before the age of 40, my background in abortion provides a ton of useful clinical and emotional skills to be a good midwife. Good midwifery care has to include all phases of the reproductive lifespan, including abortion. (And hopefully one day CNMs will be legally allowed to provide spontaneous and elective abortion care in all states!)

Now

Tomorrow will mark three months as a practicing CNM, but I think I’ve been practicing the midwifery model of care for more than that. I respect that other midwives took other paths — and they may have done so out of their own necessities. I hope that as I enter the birth setting again in a few months, when I get my hospital privileges, I can continue to safely develop my labor and birth skills and humbly continue my journey with new mentors and teachers.

 

*There are, of course, other paths to midwifery outside of nursing. I respect direct-entry or certified midwives, but I don’t claim to know much about their paths. I can only speak as someone that went the CNM route, and know that non-nurse midwives have their own contributions to women’s healthcare that may differ from where CNMs might be coming from (e.g. Ina Mae Gaskin).


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Healing to the test?

In this day of Common Core and mandatory ACTs for high school graduation, it should not be surprising that patients are obsessed about getting all the lab tests they can to make sure “everything is alright.” Luckily, unlike my teacher friends being measured by their students’ test results, my patients’ performance on tests or other health measures does not directly impact my pay or job standing. But this preoccupation with testing does impact  how I work.

What tests matter?

Don’t get me wrong. The miracles of modern medicine include such wonderful innovations as cultures and blood tests for herpes, liquid based pap and HPV tests, vaginitis cultures, gonorrhea and chlamydia DNA tests, and sophisticated tests for syphilis and HIV. You don’t have to just rely on the patient’s history and the exam findings to make a diagnosis when such tests are available. I am ever so grateful to have these tests, as I like to compare my clinical diagnosis to the test findings to learn more about what I’m seeing, especially as a new provider. And duh, there are many infections and diseases you can’t diagnose from an exam alone, like HIV.

Someone that has high risk sexual practices, like multiple sex partners or a non-monogamous partner, or who doesn’t practice safer sex with new partners needs to be screened. Luckily, our scientist friends over at CDC have figured out based on evidence that such folks should be screened for common STIs even if they don’t have symptoms, based on such risk factors. In a healthy clinic environment, we can educate patients about what health practices put them at risk and for which screening is indicated. We can point to evidence based guidelines to shape our practices, and we can counsel patients about what we recommend they get screened for. We can also educate patients on reducing risk and promote prevention.

It’s also usually indicated to offer HIV testing to all patients at least annually and three months following a positive test for other sexually transmitted infections like gonorrhea, chlamydia, trichomoniasis, or herpes.

Why isn’t it all about the test though?

I know why we’re all obsessed about getting tested for everything. It’s widely promoted as the be all and end all of healthcare. And it probably has a lot to do with the fact that lab testing companies make money every time providers order tests. They have put a lot of work into convincing the healthcare world that tests are better than anything for most diagnoses. This contributes to the the move away from physical examination as an essential skill in health provision. How many times have you been to see a physician for care and they have not laid hands on you at all? Not listened to your heart, lungs, and bowel sounds, not measured your abdominal girth, not palpated your tummy, not inspected your legs or feet? I hear frequently from friends that their doctors don’t even touch them.

We have been trained to think that the test says everything. And when it comes to women’s health, our bodies are so often the site of something wrong, something that could be wrong, and we want that test that says “everything is alright.” But we are not test subjects, we are human bodies. I hate that my patients think they need to hold themselves up to be examined like that: alright or not alright based on a test. Even if a physical exam appears to be normal or not normal, there are also other elements of the clinic visit to be taken into consideration — the patient’s history or symptomatology, for instance. Technology cannot replace the wise hands or critical thinking skills of an experienced practitioner.

Then what is it all about?

Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States. It drives me crazy that I have many patients who are not at risk for gonorrhea and chlamydia, who don’t even get bacterial vaginosis, but demand to be tested for these infections as though the results to those tests will be the major determinant of whether or not “everything is alright” for them. The far bigger impact on their health is not something that may or may not be wrong specifically with their vaginas but that they have sedentary lives, eat no fruits and vegetables, and eat a ton of fast food and junk food. Somewhere down the line, when they begin to develop diabetes or high blood pressure, there will be tests they can demand, and those tests may reveal whether or not everything is alright. Maybe everything is “alright” until the tests say otherwise. Maybe these test-hungry patients are trying to buy time until there will be a simple solution like a blood pressure pill or diabetes medicine to take, something far less complicated than trying to change a lifestyle when there’s nothing “wrong” except for…well, their whole lifestyle. And who can blame them? Pretty much nothing about how this society is organized facilitates healthy lifestyles for any but the few, and that’s why we are mostly an unhealthy society. If it were easy to be healthy, most of us would be.

What is it all about? Making the clinic a welcoming environment in which the normal and healthy are celebrated and explained, and the provider and patient can be partners in moving toward healthier habits and reducing risks. Demystifying the office visit and the technology we sometimes use to aid our assessments. Patiently explaining. And hopefully winning patients’ trust to lean on the exam and not just the tests.


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“There are so many places in the world with no healthcare–how could our patients have all this access but not show up?”

This is a common refrain from my collaborating physician, a woman who has worked in this community for decades and whose spirit betrays her lack of ability to maintain empathy. I’m not sure what she had to begin with, but now it is worn pretty bare.

It was hard to imagine those first few weeks. It can’t be that bad, I thought. Most people probably have some level of interest in taking care of our health, have some buy-in. Especially pregnant patients, right?

***

Every week, there are patients who show up toward the end of pregnancy, realizing it’s time to have the baby, having not been in prenatal care for months, maybe at all. They know they need to get the baby out. But they didn’t come in for their second trimester anemia follow-up, the anatomy scan ultrasound, the diabetes screen. They didn’t necessarily take their prenatal vitamins and likely haven’t been eating healthy. Maybe they were smoking weed or drinking or having high risk sex. They don’t know if the baby is going appropriately or if the baby is “okay,” but they come in…they come in.

Everyone I work with, even those who have been working in this community for years, still seems surprised that our patients don’t reverence prenatal care the way they did, or the way they think everyone should. “I went for every one of my prenatal appointments, I took my vitamins, I showed up, why can’t these people?”

“These people.”

And it’s true. In the narrowest sense, all pregnant patients in my state can get prenatal  care. For undocumented mamas, it can be more difficult. No public health clinic is going to turn you away, that I know of. And for our patients, getting insured, getting Medicaid, is possible. Not saying the state doesn’t make you jump through hoops that may at times be humiliating and exhausting, but in theory pregnant women at least can get insured. But at least there is some assurance that the state will cover the cost of your care. It’s free!

And then there is coming in.

There is, of course, a wide variety of reasons patients don’t come in until midway through the second, or even until late in the third, trimester to establish care or to pick up where they left off after the initial dating ultrasound. I can’t pretend to understand all that goes on outside the clinic, in my patients’ lives, but I can say that moralizing about patients not showing up doesn’t actually help get them in the door or make them feel welcomed when they do show up.

No, this isn’t a rural community in subsaharan Africa, where there isn’t modern medicine. Oh, here, we have it all! We are in the heart of a wealthy American city!

***

…A wealthy city in which fifty public elementary schools were just closed, almost all in black and brown neighborhoods; in which the majority of my patients only ever see white faces in their health clinics, maybe their kids’ schools, and in blue uniforms; in which there are few grocery stores and terrible transportation systems in the neighborhoods that are majority people of color; where in some areas youth are tracked into the criminal injustice system and in others, they are offered the world.

When the City doesn’t really give a shit about you, doesn’t value your basic human needs, let alone your higher aspirations…why would you necessarily adhere to the proscribed regimen of care for the baby you are carrying?

And even in these terrible circumstances, most of our patients are active participants in their care — they show up, get excited each time they hear the baby’s heartbeat, they worry when anything isn’t normal, they ask great questions about their bodies and the life growing inside of them.

But just as you can’t compare yourself, who did everything “right” when you were pregnant, to the few patients that don’t show up for care, you also cannot compare these “delinquent” patients to those mamas in the (other) third world who would be so grateful to have access to the kind of care that our patients take for granted.

And what if your managed care Medicaid company has you tied to your primary care provider at a clinic where every time you meet with the doctor, you feel like she doesn’t have time for you, doesn’t explain where your cervix is, doesn’t follow up on your look of bewilderment with a simple question about how she can help you understand?

I might not keep showing up either.

***

It is frustrating and scary as hell to be a prenatal care provider in those situations. When you accept a pregnant patient into your care so late, you just don’t know what you’re going to get. Intrauterine growth restriction? Fetal alcohol syndrome? Uncontrolled gestational diabetes? Preterm labor? You feel like you’re scrambling to catch up, to find out what is going on physiologically, with the pregnancy, and what motivates the woman carrying the pregnancy. You worry she might expect everything to go perfectly, while it appears she hasn’t done her part to reduce risk, since you haven’t seen her for so much of her pregnancy. You might become the type of provider you swore you’d never become. You might not even recognize yourself after years of seeing the same social problems reflected in the faces of your beautiful young patients.

Until we fight for and win from the system quality affordable housing, excellent free public education, decriminalization of our youth and of blackness, safe and affordable food and water, expansive mass transit, and a single payer health care system, the circumstances under which we utilize any and all of these basic human needs will be less than ideal. And so will our provision of such care and services.

I look forward to working in healthcare in which women’s and children’s lives will be truly valued, and in which we will collectively trust, not scrutinize–but also, enhance–women’s decisions and lives.

For now, I am grateful for having a worldview that helps me find empathy alongside righteous rage against the system. I’m grateful for education that gave me the tools to provide evidence based care, so I can continue working to do my best for patients as they show up in my clinic, whenever they’re at in the lifecycle. I’m grateful for lunchtime office yoga or forest preserve walks that preserve my sanity. And I’m grateful for intersectional (anti-racist, anti-sexist, environmental justice approach) social and economic movements in the city, country, and world, that can make things better inside and outside the clinic walls. Because good lord, things need to get better, soon.