In the Jewish tradition, we tell the story of the two midwives Shifra and Puah, who worked illegally to continue to assist women giving birth, during the time of the oppression of the Jewish people in Egypt. They refused to obey the Pharoah's command, which was to kill the boy babies. When Pharoah questioned them, they gave him an answer that he couldn't refute, that the women delivered so quickly they couldn't catch the boys to kill them.
That sounds like an illegal midwife's story: when she has to transport a client to the hospital, she lies and says she was "just" the doula, and that the baby came so quickly that she didn't know what to do.
Midwives have been feared. We've been targeted, killed, oppressed, abused... we have been painted as the old lady with large warts who rides a broomstick and eats toads. We were burned as heretics and witches during various periods of human history. We've got magic in our hands, that's certain: we know about birth, life and death ... we know how to comfort a woman who seems like she's dying, and we can heal a child with herbs and loving care.
In one obscure tradition from the Book of Enoch, some angels were looking down and they fell in love with human women. They got together and fell to earth, had sex with the women and exchanged with them the knowledge of fire, herbal healing, and magic.
And all the others together with them took unto themselves wives, and each chose for himself one, and they began to go in unto them and to defile themselves with them, and they taught them charms and enchantments, and the cutting of roots, and made them acquainted with plants. And they became pregnant, and they bare great giants.
Midwives have a great tradition of teaching through apprenticeship. We believe that book learning is a wonderful thing, indeed, the knowledge we have instantly at our fingertips is truly marvellous. The scientific method is an absolutely necessary tool that midwives need to know how to use. But there is nothing to compare to the knowledge that an apprentice gains by witnessing her mentor at work. She learns by watching, listening, using all her senses and intuitions to understand and absorb the skill and art of midwifery.
Midwives accompany women on their birth journey, knowing that it is not always orgasmic and fun. We know how to spot a small dark cloud on the horizon, and when to intervene, and when to send a woman to the hospital, if such a thing exists where we are practising. I recently heard a commentary on natural birth: "Fuck! This is horrible!". She birthed about a half hour later. The pain was immense, no drugs were given, she thought she was going to die, and didn't believe us when we told her otherwise. She birthed, and will always remember how strong she was.
Midwifery is now taught in universities in much of the western world. Graduate midwives then are licensed and controlled by state rules and establishment guidelines. These guidelines are not midwifery guidelines, necessarily. Some of them are in place to help midwives save lives, but others are not. Midwives are put in a difficult position of having to make decisions that go against their knowledge, intuition and skills so that they are not penalized or ostracized by their peers.
I have followed a crooked, witchy path to midwifery, that included being taught by many, many wise women and a few wise men.
Here is a Solstice shout out to the original illegal midwives, Shifra and Puah, and to all the women I know who are practising honest midwifery in the here and now.... you know who you are!