I just found out that another student graduate of the MBC Doula School has been accepted into Ryerson midwifery school. She will make a wonderful midwife and I truly believe that the experience she has had volunteering for Montreal Birth Companions has given her the groundwork that she needs to start her midwifery education with confidence and compassion.
I have been involved in maternity care since I was thirteen, which as my youngest son likes to point out, was a very long time ago! For years, when my four older children were small and I was running an organic subsistence farm, I studied Clara Hartley's "Apprentice Academics" long-distance midwifery courses, and so I gained my theoretical background for woman-centered care. When I returned to Canada, I chose to attend births as a doula and I continued to learn from every woman I accompanied, and from every professional I met.
I have been part of programs that offer midwifery internships to students in parts of the world where midwives is scarce and hospitals are under-equipped and expensive. This phenomenon morphed into programs in the southern US that provide midwife-based maternity care to Mexican women, and it also became a popular way for student midwives from the US to "get their numbers" for the Certified Professional Midwife program administered by NARM. This practice has now been discontinued because of ethical considerations, which makes it even more difficult for midwifery students from North America to have contact with women from cultures outside of their own.
Midwifery programs in Canada are not apprentice-based, and the university programs that teach Canadian midwives do not expect students to go to the community to gather their birth experience. Practical experience is combined with theoretical study to provide the students with a grounding in midwifery in Canada.
The requirements for graduation vary slightly from province to province, but generally a graduate midwife must have attended "a minimum of 60 births, acting as primary caregiver for at least 40 births in home and hospital settings." (http://www.ryerson.ca/midwifery/overview.html)
A student midwife can learn a lot from participating in the births of 60 babies. As every birth is different, the student will see, hear and learn about many variations to the tune of giving birth. If she is primary caregiver for 40 births, hopefully she will attend ten home births, and possibly have to transfer one of those to the hospital.
But I propose that prospective midwifery students in Canada and around the world can greatly benefit from a foundation of learning and experience that they will find by volunteering as doulas for needy women.
First, volunteering as a doula can teach a midwifery student about an important aspect of midwifery, an aspect that is not taught in class and can only be learned in practice - and even better in doula practice! This is the art of sitting on your hands: "Don't just do something - sit there!" is one of the golden rules of being a true Birth Keeper. Doulas working in hospitals alongside medically trained professionals need to be able to keep their opinions to themselves. They need to learn how to act diplomatically in all sorts of situations. They need to learn how to comfort, how to heal, how to facilitate natural birth with only the lowest technologies. They learn how to measure cervical dilation with their eyes and ears. They can distinguish between normal pain in labor and suffering. They are adept at hearing the little catch in the breath at the peak of a contraction that means that a woman is nearing the pushing phase. They can sense the difference between the "6 cm rectal pressure" (when a woman probably just needs to have a poo); and the fully dilated deep pushing urge.
Why are these skills important for a midwife? Because the art of midwifery rests on a foundation of physiological childbirth. And the more a midwife knows about how NOT to disturb the birthing process, the easier her task will be. Then when she starts her midwifery classes, which teach her the skills that doulas are not trained in, she will already have the very basics of birth attendance.
Secondly, as a volunteer doula with an organization such as MBC, the midwife-to-be will come into contact with women from many backgrounds. She will witness birth experiences that will be as different from each other as every woman's story. She will find herself listening to women's stories from around the world, and she will learn about herself as a woman and as a birth companion. She will learn about professional boundaries, and about the challenges that women face when they are marginalized.
As a Birth Keeper, I have witnessed many births and I have been part of many more, as coordinator of MBC, as shoulder to cry on, as mentor. I have learned from books and from my teachers (Basia, Ibu Robin, Heather, and others). I have learned what NOT to do from other teachers - and those I won't name - but I have witnessed midwives, nurses and physicians who have treated birthing women with disrespect and brutality.
But the most I have learned has been from the birthing women I have served. And this is why I believe that volunteering with an organization such as Montreal Birth Companions should not be an aid to midwifery school acceptance, but a requirement.