Rhythm of a Midwife Heart

Last Updated by Deborah McBain on
Neal Street Productions
Deborah McBain on the family and community ties that that are forged over a lifetime.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author. 
Spoiler Alert: This post discusses events in Call the Midwife Season 7 Episode 3

I contemplated giving up contributing to this blog this season. Since I am no longer an actively practicing midwife, I wasn’t sure I could offer anything new to the subject of modern midwifery other than my own personal stories. It seemed a bit self indulgent to imagine value in my stories. My life and career is only remarkable in the way that all lives are unique and remarkable. A sister heart suggested that perhaps I had a responsibility to tell these stories because I had the ability and the opportunity to do so. So I decided to continue writing. It is my desire that my stories, written now with the perspective of distance and time will provide new understanding to the reader’s own experience.

Episode 3 begins with the question: What is family? Our narrator goes on to suggest that it is more than genetics. Perhaps family is: “…the rhythm our hearts beat out marking out the days we share.” If one follows that premise, it may be that the rhythm may not be realized until distance and time provides perspective on what was and is shared. We may not recognize the genesis of a family until after we realize the impact of those shared days.

My life’s journey has kept me in the same geographic area my entire life. Just as Nurse Valerie Dyer yearned to escape her Poplar neighborhood as a young woman, I yearned to escape mine. I fed my wanderlust with travel abroad and throughout the United States. Just as Nurse Dyer, I turned back to family, where my life began. I think another word for this sense of family is community. I continue to reflect on the strength this strong sense of family and community has provided as I ventured through the challenges life presents all of us.

Compare and contrast Valerie Dyer with the new au pair, Magda. Valerie is strong and secure in her trust of community support. Magda is alone and desperate. If Magda had had more time to develop community and family relationships before being confronted with her personal crisis, would she have made different choices? Although impossible to know, I can imagine she leaves the Turner household with Shelagh’s nursing books in hand, a stronger wiser young woman. I can imagine her taking this experience of community compassion and support and using this in her own future nursing career. Perhaps even as a nurse midwife, she will use her own experience to provide empathy and wisdom to other alone and desperate women. I can imagine this because of the support I’ve received from my biological family and family of friends as they have midwifed me through my numerous life labors. I can imagine this because of the support I’ve been able to return as a result of what I’ve received.

In 1963, I was too young to be paraded around like a prize heifer: the analogy Phyllis Crane used to describe her antipathy for Poplar’s community beauty contest. I did win a ribbon in a hula-hoop contest that year. I still shop where that hula-hoop contest was held in the parking lot of that era’s state of the art shopping mall.

Leaving childhood behind, I entered into a larger community, I began to travel my life’s path with a group of women whose hearts shared one same rhythm. From the 1970s to present our lives have intertwined as we sought to change the birth culture in our community.

As nurses, midwives, health care consumers, mothers, and wives we sought to change the culture of women’s health and hospital maternity care from one of covert abuse to empowerment. As consumer advocates we began offering childbirth education in church basements. We encouraged mothers to write birth plans and discuss them with their obstetricians. We worked to get fathers allowed into labor and delivery rooms. We radically suggested that women could give birth without drugs, spinal anesthetic and forceps. We instituted ”couplet” care where a mother and baby were cared for as a unit in the same room. Prior to this babies were separated from their mothers and wheeled down from the nursery every 4 hours for feeding.

We continued our campaign of change by staffing the first out of hospital birthing center in the state. As we countered physician and administrative resistance we also cultivated allies amongst them to keep the birthing center functioning. We promoted father involvement, breastfeeding and even sibling preparation. For the children’s class, a friendly stuffed toy monkey was custom altered to provide a birth demonstration. During that class “Mrs. Stuffy” would give birth to a smaller stuffed toy monkey with a snap off umbilical cord and placenta. The birth of Mrs. Stuffy’s “baby” during the class would always prompt applause from our young attendees.

Empowered by our successes, some of us went back to school and became midwives to grasp more control over how women were cared for. Nurse-midwives were not licensed in our state until 1973. Initially we had to leave our families and go out of state for our nurse-midwifery education. Now there are midwifery education programs at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Wayne State University in Detroit. Some of us fought to become the first midwives to legally practice within the hospital systems.

Others followed other paths but our hearts kept rhythm. Over distance and time many of us have kept in touch. We have supported each other through illnesses, life crises and deaths. We have celebrated weddings, birthdays and births together. Yearly, over the last 15 or so years, 10-12 of us retreat to a lake house for a long weekend. It feels like a family reunion each time.  We are sisters of the heart, a community of caring and strength. I know I am a stronger, wiser woman for having traveled with these women. Being part of this family of sisters makes my midwife heart beat a happy rhythm.

Deb_author_portrait.jpgDeborah McBain (CNM, MS, BSN, RN) is a retired certified nurse-midwife and practiced full-scope midwifery in Metro Detroit for 20 years. For 23 years before her midwifery career she practiced as an RN in medical/surgical, obstetrical and neonatology units. During her career, in addition to her midwifery practice, she taught childbirth education, led menopause support groups and mentored nursing, midwifery and medical students as well as physician residents.
Read More About Deborah |  Read All Posts by Deborah

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PBS and Detroit Public Television have partnered with experienced midwives to discuss their role in modern obstetrics and how things have changed in relation to Call the Midwife, which takes place in the 1950s and 1960s. Learn More