Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Midwife's Apprentice

book cover of  The Midwife's Apprentice  by Karen Cushman

One thing I have managed to squeeze in over the past few weeks is some easy reading. The young adult novel, The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman, a 1996 Newberry Medal winner, tells the story of a homeless girl, Alyce, in an old English village, who is recruited by the local midwife to do the drudgery of birth work under the guise of an apprentice. She collects herbs, boils water, and is ordered to stay out of the room at the actual time of the birth, so as not to be divulged of the midwife's secrets! In the beginning the girl is grateful for a warm place to sleep and two square meals a day in exchange for her help, but eventually she succumbs to the magic of birth. Oddly enough, the first time she realizes that she has a knack for birth is at the delivery of twin calves. The mama cow is frightened and so Alyce starts to pet her and whisper to her, and soon the miracle of birth occurs. She is smitten.

"One morning as they sat under the old oak tree eating their breakfast bread, Alyce told the cat again about the birth of Tansy's twins. 'All shiny they were and sticky to touch. I did not even know them, but I loved them so much."

I'm sure most women who attend births experience this instantaneous affection for the baby as well. I often feel as if the baby's otherworldly secret lingers with me for days after the birth. Alyce thereafter was hooked. At the next birth (of a human this time) that she attends, the midwife gets called away to another (better paying) birth. She is left alone with a thrashing, miserable, laboring woman. Her success with calming the laboring cow resurface and so she:

"...took another deep breath and returned to Joan's side. She gave her mugwort in warm ale to drink and spoke soothingly, calling her Sweetheart and Good Old Girl. She warmed oil over the fire and rubbed her head and belly, as she had the cow's. She did not know the spells or the magic, so gave Joan all she had of care and courtesy and hard work."

And that is the essence of being with women in labor, coaxing babies through the darkened portal into light, bringing a woman 'round the bend to motherhood just takes a little courtesy, care, and hard work. It makes such a difference to have a hand to hold, a soft smile, and someone to laugh with when it's all said and done. These are the midwives, the ones who sit with women on the threshold of pain, and walk with them over it to joy, who bring them through this rite of passage again and again with dignity, wisdom and grace. I hope that there are midwife apprentices forever.

Give this book to the young women in your life that they might be inspired. And when you do, consider that there is a global Call to Action to strengthen midwifery around the world. Maybe like Alyce, more young women will look inside themselves and feel the call to serve women with that ancient, gentle midwife's touch. Far too many women in this world never know respect and compassion when they need it most, when bringing a new life into gravity's pull. We deserve better.

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