Midwives of transformation: an excerpt from the 2012 Weed Lecture

by Lucy Duncan

This post is an excerpt from the 2012 Weed Lecture I presented at the Beacon Hill Friends House on May 20th. The lecture is an annual event honoring Ernest and Esther Weed, who were longtime directors of the house in its formative years. You can learn more about the lecture at the Beacon Hill Friends House website or purchase the full lecture at QuakerBooks of FGC. - Lucy

My sense is that within the current chaos and tribulations there is a manifestation of God striving to be born, that the cracks revealed in our human systems, in our religious communities, in our treatment of the earth and fellow creation reveal new possibilities and ways we might live more faithfully. I believe we are called to assist in that work, to be midwives of the emergent spiritual transformation trying to be born. I believe we are called to witness and lovingly hold our communities, our home, as the breaking open leads to deeper truths and greater light. We are called to gather together to listen attentively for God’s still small voice and to use our hands in the work to which God invites us. The wounds are yearning for healing, the cracks are openings for transformation, the hurts we’ve experienced and caused are windows onto compassion – if we can be faithful, if we can surrender to doing our part in God’s plan.

What is this midwifery to which we are called? How does it work? I don’t have the answer. The answer comes in community and in continual discernment. But I would like to tell you a story that might help give a sense of how such a call can begin to be answered.

When I think of the role of midwife very specific images arise for me from my own experience giving birth. My son Simon was born ten years ago. My mother came to town for the occasion.She was surprised I asked her to be present at his birth; she wouldn’t have invited her mother to my birth or those of my brothers. But I told her,  “You and I have a different relationship”, so she came. She accompanied me to the doctor’s appointment a little after the due date. I had taken Bradley birth classes with my husband, my caregivers were midwives and we had engaged a doula, sort of a birth coach. My mother had given birth to the three of us naturally (my brother was the first Lamaze baby in Iowa City.) My mother had found a doctor to experiment with the method with her and he had become the Lamaze doctor in the city. My mother claimed she had had no pain with any of our births. So, my vision for my birth was with no pain medicine or medical intervention. But when I showed up at the doctor’s office, my blood pressure was elevated slightly. The stern doctor with a handlebar mustache diagnosed me with mild pre-eclampsia and ordered me to check into the hospital to be induced.

So, we went and Graham, my husband, met us at the hospital. The midwives admitted me, put me in a small room and started me on pitocin to induce Simon’s birth. Then the waiting began, a continuation of the waiting and preparation for the baby. If my caregivers weren’t midwives, I’m fairly clear that I would have ended up with a C-section – the midwives were patient. I sat in that small room for three days with various efforts at inducing Simon and slowly began to experience contractions. Our doula, Angela, brought a video and talked with the midwives, made us laugh. On the second night, I was dilated enough that the midwife on call thought I would likely give birth the next day and she wanted to turn up the pitocin dose. I turned it down, said I wanted to sleep if I was going into labor the next day. The contractions continued through the night and by the morning I was far enough progressed that they rolled me into a labor room. The midwife said the nurse wasn’t the one she would have chosen for me, but our doula joked with the nurse, made a connection and the nurse became our champion, part of the team of support. The midwife, the third one on call who would deliver Simon, turned up the pitocin and my contractions came fast and hard. Graham stood behind me, holding me the whole time, rubbing my back, attentive to my moods and needs. Angela, the doula, watched me, brought her set of tools including a rolling pin filled with ice water to sooth my back.

She supported me, remained attentive to me and the other people in the room. My dear friend Barbara Hirshkowitz unobtrusively took pictures of the scene. Even though I was hooked up to all kinds of monitors and couldn’t get out of bed, the bed could be manipulated into all kinds of positions, and I could be in all kinds of positions, too. I labored on my hands and knees, used a bar to squat, and moved whenever I needed to. My mom stayed nearby and people kept coming into the room asking if they could see the birth. I didn’t mind, felt fairly focused and  unselfconscious. So, I was encircled by supporters, holding me,* playing different roles of encouragement and active prayer. At one point after a very intense contraction, I looked over at my mom and said, “Painless childbirth, Mom, you’re full of shit!” Everyone in the room thought I was too focused and intent on my contractions to talk, and they burst out laughing.

Later the contractions became very intense and came quickly one after another. I started to use the code word my doula and I had identified to indicate I couldn’t handle the pain anymore and was ready for medication. She said, “Let’s get the midwife and see where you are, then you can decide.” The midwife returned, checked my progress and I was entering transition, the painful moment right before you can begin to push. When I heard I was so close, I said I could make it through and declined the medication. As soon as I could push, I was fine getting through the contractions. I pushed for awhile, longer than an hour and as I got closer to delivering Simon the midwife didn’t leave the room, put on her gloves and prepared to catch him. Barbara took a picture of the exact moment of Simon’s birth. It’s full of hands. The midwives hands holding him, Simon’s hands stretched open, reaching toward the light, Graham’s hands holding me, and my own, holding my leg up. The midwife placed Simon on my chest and I heaved a huge sigh of gratitude and joy as he nuzzled up against my breasts.

This seems to me to be an image for the role we are meant to play in assisting God in birthing a transformation in us and in our society. God is always striving to be born within us and in the world and our call is to bring our hands and hearts and attention to the task, to lovingly hold what is being birthed, to welcome it, and to wait and pray and actively support the birth. When the pain is too much, our role is to be present to the pain, to find ways to refrain from numbing ourselves with pain killers or privilege or by asserting control, and to remember that the birth is nearly here, if we can support it. The room full of people actively holding the birth is also what we as a religious community are called to – to join together circling round to name the truth of the situation and to support and be awake to the emergence of the spiritual reality that is striving to be born. What is born doesn’t belong to us, but our hands are needed to hold and tend to the vulnerable being that is being revealed, that is seeking to thrive.

* Holding is used in the sense of “holding in the light” or in prayer.