Rocking the Birth Dogma Boat

Brave new world

November 12, 2011
1 Comment

I did two things that scared me this weekend, and it is only Saturday afternoon.  The first one was easy-I was in an international fashion show at school to raise money for charity.  It was not my idea; a friend put me on the list and gave me a (tiny!) dress from Ghana to rock, and as the girl in line in front of me was halfway down the aisle-my cue to start walking-I froze.  It felt like every other emergency I have eve faced, catastrophic enough that a still, calm voice takes over and speaks in simple 3 word sentences, and you react.  Usually this still calm voice says things like “control the bleeding” “go for the anterior shoulder” “call 911” and “have the rescusitation tray ready.”  This time it said “channel Project Runway. Now walk.”  And so I did.  Terrified, I walked past 100 people in my tiny little dress, shaking my ass, pretending I was hoping to be America’s next top model, listening to that still, calm voice and thanking God that I was a midwife, used to reacting in emergencies, doing what needed to be done!

The second one was harder. For years, I have had the hands of a birth worker-dry from gloves and water birth tubs, with short plain nails so that no one gets hurt when I need to check a cervix or put antibiotics in a baby’s eyes.  My hands matched my identity.  Then I did my last postpartum with my last client a few days ago, and I told myself that I would get a manicure to celebrate.  I’ve been putting off this manicure, sensing that it will be a final goodbye, new nails and a new identity, no going back.   I’ve had maybe 3 manicures before in my life, usually for someone’s wedding, and I’ve always taken the polish off quickly after the vows are exchanged because I was always on call, with prenatals to do.  No more.

So I headed down to nail place in my neighborhood and picked out an audacious red completely inappropriate for the job interview I have on Tuesday.  The shop was fairly empty for a Saturday afternoon, with 3 manicurists and one client soaking her feet in the pedicure bath.  My manicurist was  hugely pregnant Vietnamese woman who hummed something that sounded like a cross between a lullaby and a longing-filled love ballad as she worked.  She touched me casually, like  my fingers were vegetables she was peeling in a kitchen full of women, and the work of her hands were secondary to the stories and laughter surrounding her.  Her hands were sure. I liked her.

She soaked my fingers and complained that I kept my nails so short.  Reflexively, I almost told her that I had to because I worked in health care, my standard answer for casual acquantences who ask me what I do, and I realized that I no longer work in health care.  I no longer do the work that defined me for most of my adult life.  I was sitting at a manicurist’s table getting my nails done an audacious shade of red because I am no longer a midwife.  My hands, drying on the table and cradled in the manicurist’s palms, my hands would never catch babies ever again.  Audaciously red, I no longer have midwife hands.

My classmate Malia got married right after midwifery school.  She timed her bridal shower to coincide with a national midwifery conference taking place in her hometown a few months after we graduated.  I walked in to the shower with two other girls I had gone to school with, and, as we introduced ourselves to Malia’s friends and relatives, one of her aunties ran to us.  “Let me see your hands,” she demanded.  “These are the hands that will welcome babies. These are midwife hands. Let me see your hands.”  In the light of Malia’s mother’s front room, our hands looked graceful, important, gentle, decisive and sure. Our hands seemed like a promise, a continuing and honoring of all that was good about women, hands that held yours in the dark, hands that would build a safe corner in a sad and uncertain world.  Midwife hands.

My hands, sitting on the manicurist’s table, are less elegant and carry less promise.  I thought about all my hands know, all the shoulder dystocia drills, exactly how quickly to push the barrel of a syringe so that it stings as little as possible, where exactly to rub on a labor woman’s back and how hard to knead, how to smooth hair away from a brow that is losing faith, gently restoring it.  I fought back the urge to cry, staring instead up at the wall behind the manicure station, a shelf of Budda statutes and a jade plant a foot above a shelf of nail chemicals.  The football game blared from the wall-mounted TV and the woman with her feet in the tub turned the pages of her magazine.  My manicurist hummed more softly, and started painting my final coat, resting my hand gently on her thumb.  I didn’t recognize my hands.  I wasn’t ready for my hands.

I thought I was ready for this change.  I have been telling myself every day that I am still me, and I am starting to believe it.  I am as valuable, as kind, as wise, as funny, as good to women and as worthwhile as I was as a midwife.  My therapist sister tells me that there is more to me than my job, even though it felt like my job became me as a midwife, and tells me to have faith through this transition.  She tells me I am still a good sister.  My boyfriend tells me I am a good woman whatever I do, and tells me I don’t need to do unsupported work that makes me feel crazy to be good.  He tells me I am worth investing in, and looking out for.  My mother emails me to tell me this is a good decision and she is proud of me.  My friends came to my party, got me drunk, made me cut an old telephone cord, and told me I was free, standing by me through a transition like I have stood by many a woman as she labors.   I taught a class about birth to 80 students, and talked about autonomy, control and systems change, and realized I was reaching as many women in three hours as I would in 3 years of attending births.  I want to believe all this, and most days I do.

So I look at my hands, and I try to re-frame this change. I don’t have midwife hands.  I have hands that will remember their own worth, trembling hands that will write books, and struggle to keep up taking notes during interviews, elegant hands that teach others, sure hands that will peel vegetables in a kitchen full of laughing women, gentle hands that will exchange rings with the man I love, hands that are still mine.  My hands will not cling to the dogma of a dying model like it is a life raft. My hands will hold uncertainty and complexity.  I will still be me, and I will still do good work.  I will still have the kind of hands that at their best make a safe corner in a sad and uncertain world, audaciously red hands that will hold yours in the dark.

And so it is really done.  Really over, and ready to begin, and I am scared, and trying to find the still, calm voice that tells me to stop the bleeding, walk down the aisle, trust myself…and define my hands by more than my job.

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