Transformative Power of Birth: 2020 WHO Year of the Nurse and Midwife
Guest Post by Annie Kuntz
Annie is originally from outside of Boston, Massachusetts and has been living in El Paso, Texas for 10 years. Annie has been a Certified Professional Midwife for 13 years, and runs her own busy home birth practice. She has been married to her husband for 17 years, and has four children, ages 6 to 15. She loves good conversation, laughing until she cries with her friends and family, reading books in a bubble bath, skinny-dipping, card games, singing, music of all kinds, and binge-watching crime and cooking shows. She hopes to change the world, one birth at a time.
It was 3 am. My sleep was interrupted by a cry of “birth team” yelled from down the hall. Heart pounding, I jumped up to put on my brand new scrubs. Wiping sleep from my eyes, I quietly slipped into the room, and stood against the back wall. The mother was grunting and panting, the assistant mopping her brown with a cool washcloth. The father hovered nearby, nervous and excited. The midwife spoke quietly and calming to the mother, encouraging her, directing her. I stood and watched in awe as the tiny head began to appear, with wet, dark hair. As the baby emerged completely, the midwife gently guided her to the mother’s chest, all the time praising the mother for her hard work and welcoming this new life to the world. Tears sprung to my eyes, and the very clear thought came into my head: “This is my life’s work.”
Witnessing that first birth put my life on a course I never could have anticipated. I was in college, working towards a B.A. in English that I would ultimately only use to write and edit practice guidelines, protocols and client handouts. This opportunity to shadow midwives for a month fell into place so quickly, that it was clear to me later that it was a divine path that lead me to my calling.
People often ask me, “does it ever get old?” No. No, it doesn’t. I’ve now witnessed about 850 births and each one amazes me, feels sacred, teaches me something, scares me, connects me, lifts me up. Each birth is different. But never boring. I still cry, I grin from ear to ear, I shake from the rush of adrenaline flowing out of me. Sometimes, I sit, spent, with my head in my hands and try to breathe life back into myself. I have felt the hands of my Heavenly Mother guiding my hands. I have called on Her when I’m scared or confused. I have thanked Her profusely when a baby breathes that I have had to resuscitate. Her words have come in the voices of my mentors, colleagues, students and assistants. And in clear thoughts in my mind of what to do. I feel Her spirit in the room, in those holy, sacred moments. Birth is Her space.
At the Exponent II Retreat in 2013, Fara Anderson Sneddon taught a workshop on the history of women giving blessings. My world broke open. Learning the beauty of blessings that were given to expectant mothers felt like coming home. I wept as I learned that midwives were called and given Priesthood authority to practice their craft in the early days of the Church. Picturing my midwifery ancestors laying their hands on mothers and babies to bless and heal filled my heart with joy. It further confirmed my knowledge that midwifery is truly a calling, and one guided by our Heavenly Mother.
Midwifery has enveloped my life. It connects all parts of me. My passion, my feminism, my musicianship, my sense of justice, my politics, my sensitivity. It’s not just a job. It’s an identity. I have to fight hard to defend midwifery in my country, which connects me to my work in a radical way. Sometimes it’s answering basic questions like, “Is home birth really safe?”, sometimes it’s attending meetings with legislators and lobbyists, sometimes it’s defending a client’s choice to a doctor. Midwifery is an outlier in the US. Many countries have embraced midwifery-led care as the standard of care for pregnancy, birth, postpartum and neonatal care. These healthcare systems have integrated midwives as primary care providers for pregnancy, who refer to obstetricians if complications arise. The majority of these countries have vastly better maternal and infant outcomes than in the US.
Midwifery has transformed my once liberal feminism to radical feminism to intersectional feminism. The capitalist healthcare system in the US rewards procedures and interventions, which midwives rarely perform. This system is also misogynistic, racist, transphobic, homophobic, classist, and xenophobic. Especially stark are high rates of Black maternal and infant morbidity and mortality. I have witnessed, experienced personally, and listened to people process their birth trauma. Our obstetric system often strips birthing people of their humanity, their rights, and their power. The medical system considers pregnancy and birth as illness or emergency. Midwifery looks at pregnancy and birth as natural, physiologic events. I have heard phrases like, “My baby is too big to fit through my pelvis”, “my cervix doesn’t open”, “my doctor won’t let me” over and over again. When did we allow a broken medical system to strip us of the innate power of the birthing body?
Witnessing the power of the birthing person is what I love most about my job. Yes, the babies are cute, and that first cry is magic. But watching someone go to the darkest, most intimate, and most challenging place within themselves is an honor that I will never take for granted. The birthing person must face their mortality. They must push through the fear, pain, exhaustion, and “I can’t do this anymore” in order to greet their baby. This liminal space is holy. That moment when the baby emerges, and the pain vanishes, the face changes from pain and concentration to delight and relief, that is the moment that keeps me going in this work.
The hours suck. Being on call constantly is the worst. The highs are the very highest, and the lows have crushed me and made me question whether or not I can keep going. I’ve missed birthdays, school events, holidays, and countless hours of sleep. I disappear for hours or days at a moment’s notice. My husband is understanding and my kids are proud. They excitedly ask if the baby was a boy or a girl when I come home, sweaty and tired. They have held me as I’ve cried at the rare loss of a baby. But sometimes, they miss me, they feel my priority is to my clients instead of them. They tell me they wish I was home more and I wasn’t on my phone so much. This profession has a profound effect on myself and my family. We are trying to find the balance together.
Sometimes, I do some mundane thing right after a birth, like pick up some groceries or go to the post office. As I walk around, I just want to yell, “I witnessed a miracle this morning!” I am bursting with birth stories. I believe in the power of midwifery to transform birth in the US. I have hope that integrating midwives into our healthcare system will help decrease health inequities for the BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities. I trust that we will reclaim the beauty of birth, the strength of our bodies, and the deep divine within each of us. For me, birth will never get old.