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Midwifery is more than clinical services. It’s a science and an art with deep history.
If you’ve ever been present for a baby’s birth, you know firsthand it’s a magical, transformative moment. With one final push (or surgical procedure), suddenly the number of sentient human beings in the room goes up.
You also may know that the presence of someone else—ideally someone skilled and wise—is essential. So much could go wrong, and two lives depend on the mother’s hard and painful work. Her labor and delivery need guidance—and often intervention—by a clinical expert.
For too many women and newborns around the world, magic turns to heartbreak. Every day an estimated 830 women die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related complications. Almost all of these deaths are preventable.
But we are making progress.
Between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality ratio declined by 44%—largely thanks to better access to midwives and other skilled birth attendants and to emergency obstetric care.
What it means to be a midwife varies by country, and so does what they’re called. Around the world, midwives, nurse-midwives, midwifery assistants, auxiliary nurse-midwives, and others are on the front lines, guiding women and newborns through safe deliveries and referring emergencies for prompt, specialized care.
Yet midwifery is more than just clinical services. It’s a science and an art with a deep history.
The origin of the word midwife in English literally translates to “with woman,” based on the Old English mid (meaning “with”) and wife (meaning “a woman”). This etymology prioritizes “presence” above all else.
In French, midwives are called les sages-femmes or “wise women.” Here the emphasis is on knowledge, but knowledge gleaned from a heady combination of information, experience, and intuition.
Both of these seem appropriate.
When I asked midwifery students in Uganda this year about the first deliveries they assisted, they all exclaimed how nervous they were. It wasn’t exactly what they expected, they said. How slippery the babies are! And most talked about the mother, about supporting her through the pain and keeping her calm—in other words, being present for her.
My own experiences of childbirth seemed equal parts divine and clinical—and 100% terrifying. Even when all goes well, nothing reminds you of your own mortality and strength the way childbirth does. And for each of my three children, it was a midwife who guided me, calmed me, and told me what to do. They cheered me on when I was ready to give up, and they ultimately handed me a beautiful, healthy baby.
Yes, clinical and medical interventions save lives. These skills and practices can be taught, and midwives bring lifesaving skills and knowledge to mothers and their newborns every day.
But so many midwives whom I’ve met are also truly present for women at the most physically vulnerable yet powerful moments in their lives. And these midwives draw on the wisdom or la sagesse of their profession, experiences, and intuition to calm nerves, coach, and bring new life into the world.
Today, on International Day of the Midwife, please take a moment and thank a midwife who’s made a difference in your family.
And Susan, Stephanie, and Meg: Thank you for being with me!