By Tom Smith
Sharon’s alarm buzzes, and I wait for her to turn it off. Finally I roll over, mumbling that it’s her alarm, and would she please turn it off-only to find myself talking to an empty bed. I groan, remembering the 2 a.m. phone call and thinking of the harried morning ahead.
When they call, she goes. It doesn’t matter what time it is, it doesn’t matter where in the movie you are or who’s over for dinner. Out the door she goes, and woe to the man who tries to stop her. I did, once. We were having a fight and she got the phone call. It wasn’t fair, I said. I stamped my foot. I cried. She just got madder and madder. She asked me if I wanted to call the woman and tell her to go ahead and have the baby herself. For a moment I hated the woman having the baby, but I also began to realize that for Sharon, a laboring mother always takes first priority.
I’ve heard midwives say, sometimes jokingly, sometimes with fierceness, that there is no profession quite like it. I agree, and would add that there is nothing quite like being married to a midwife. I hate what she does and I love what she does. I find it annoying and I find it exciting. Someone once told me that the divorce rate is high among homebirth midwives. I thought, “Are you kidding? What with the low pay and the bad hours and throw in the risk of prosecution in our state, what man wouldn’t want a midwife for a spouse?”
Am I angry? Sometimes. Do I want her to do something else? No way. How can I, when she comes home at 4 a.m. with tears in her eyes and tells me the story of a mother who was so afraid because her last baby had died in utero at 6 months, and how the grief and pain and joy combined as the 9 lb. baby burst into the world? She loves her work and she loves her women. She makes so many hard choices. I don’t want to make her choose between her work and me. Besides, I’d probably lose.
When our daughter, Hannah, whines and asks why her mother has to go out again tomorrow, Sharon says simply, “It’s my work, it’s what I do.” That’s true, but it is also her calling and her passion. It’s what she does to make a difference in the world. She is a lioness when she says, “Women need to have a choice about where they have their babies.” I admire her greatly at that moment–and then the phone rings. I listen as she explains about the importance of eating to feed the baby. She waves her hand as she talks, cutting to shreds the myth of minimal weight gain during pregnancy. She says, “For God’s sake, if you’re hungry, eat! Eat lots of protein. Sure, four eggs with hot sauce is fine. We want fat, happy babies.” She hangs up, and the phone rings again.
One day Hannah answered the phone, and then called Sharon, who retreated into the bedroom. I asked my daughter who it was. She said she didn’t know, but it sounded like a midwife. I thought, “Oh yes, I know what you mean. The friendly but businesslike tone, the willingness to talk to children and the sound of sisterhood coming over the lines, ‘I need to talk to your mother about something.'” As Sharon shuts the door to the bedroom I hear her say, “We use comfrey and rosemary in our sitz bath for postpartum moms and find…”
The homebirth midwives I know soak up knowledge like hungry sponges. I envy Sharon’s single-minded drive for information, whether found in a medical bulletin or in the herbal lore that is passed around orally. She eagerly collects birth stories and medical texts, experiential knowledge and book knowledge. These women have to know their stuff, because they walk a pretty narrow line–especially in Indiana. Homebirth midwifery is not exactly illegal here, but neither is it licensed.
Sometimes I feel like I’m living with an emotional roller coaster. Most of the births are uneventful, and Sharon returns home exhausted and satisfied. But sometimes when she gets home her face is filled with pain and she begins, “We had to transport…” A story of loss begins, and I go down with her into the anguish. Often the stories are not easy to listen to: the agonizing decision as it becomes increasingly clear that this birth is not going to happen in the home, the cold sterility of the ER room, the gruffness and sometimes outright hostility of the doctors who don’t have much contact with midwives. And through it all, the grief, because often, though not always, a transport means a cesarean. The midwife goes along, assisting the woman’s partner, suggesting options at the hospital. The cord of sisterhood remains intact even in this environment, so different from the quiet security and warmth of a home.
I confess that Sharon’s profession frightens me at times. She works so close to the window between life and death. She assists in the pouring forth of life into the world, and sometimes it’s a dangerous place to stand.
I talk about it as if I’m actually there, but I’m just a small part of the supporting cast. I’m a listener. I wonder at the beauty and the pain, at the toughness and vulnerability of women, and yet I stand outside. I learn the names of the birthing women and hear their birth stories, but never meet most of them.
I often think that I’m married to someone on the Wise Woman path. But Sharon is not an archetype; she’s a real woman who deals in blood and pain and bulging bellies and the epiphany of new life. She is a guardian of the birth time, and when that times comes, there nothing to do but let her go. The phone rings and she’s gone.
Tom Smith divides his time between writing, homeschooling his two children, Ben and Hannah, and working at the local library. He lives in Lafayette, Indiana, where he is still married to the midwife after 14 years.
Originally published April 2011