Midwifery. No one really seems to knows the origin of midwifery. There are plenty of articles, scholarly papers, and heck, even a Wikipedia posting on the history of midwives; however, no matter the amount of study, no one really seems to know. Some postulate midwives go as far back as Egyptian times or Roman times, some can only trace it to the middle ages in Europe and then, there are countless anecdotes from all over Asia and Africa. However, the chances are midwifery began when there was at least one man and at least two women on earth and one of those women was about to give birth. It’s likely the man didn’t know what to do, he didn’t want to know, didn’t bother to know or probably found woman’s anatomy profound, intimidating and confusing. None of which boded well for the woman about to give birth. So the other woman stepped in. And for better or for worse, that’s probably how midwifery began. It’s just a theory, but just as good as any.
Assuming a sweeping generalization that midwives are mostly women, midwifery can symbolize how women can stand together and let our shared maternal instinct guide us through familiar health needs during childbirth and how to listen to our bodies during pregnancy. There for each other to help each other through one of the most difficult bodily experiences any human could experience – the birthing process –something that only women can truly appreciate how profound that is. I suppose that is the fortunate side of midwifery. Through shared maternal instincts, only a woman would or could ever know what another woman was experiencing during pregnancy and childbirth - the truly ultimate woman’s-only event.
But, there’s an unfortunate side. Up to the twentieth century in nearly every part of the world, only men could be trained as doctors. By some accounts, doctors could not help women give birth because there was an impropriety. It was felt men should not be looking at women’s genitals let alone putting his hands in that forbidden region, especially that of another man’s wife, no matter what the reason. Of course, it was a preposterous reason to not give medical attention. Women were equally deserving of medical attention. If the occupation of midwife originated because a man was intimated and confused by a woman’s anatomy or was afraid of touching them or breaking them or that it was considered impolite, then those are not good enough reasons.
So then did midwifery really originate out of a form of fear or dislike of women which led to necessity that other women step in? It’s impossible to say. But, if only men could be educated as doctors and studied men’s anatomy, then men practiced men’s medicine, not human medicine. The female body was foreign, unfamiliar – to some, even less than man’s (take the ancient Greeks). And pregnancy and childbirth? Bringing a child into the world was somehow magical and midwives would know how to deal with that kind of magic. This is how fables turned midwives into witches or shamans.
But, it was doctors who knew how to deal with bleeding, pain, dislocated joints, ruptured skin, near-death experiences or heart attacks. None of those can be cured with magic. And, all of these sound like human anatomy to me.
Is appears we still don’t definitively know the origin of midwifery, but the status of women in their societies of the times and women’s bodies pitted against knowledge of the day might play into the narrative somehow.
But, I don’t want this to be a blurb on male dependence and rejection or even oppression. In fact, midwives have taken what might have started as discrimination and transformed it into something glorious. The glory of midwifery is the solidarity of women – women coming to the support of other women at a time that is uniquely for women. It’s a powerful circle: Gaia, Mother, Midwife, Newborn. Gaia, Mother, Midwife, Newborn. The regeneration of mind, body and spirit.
So maybe the origin doesn’t matter. Thanks to strong and capable midwives of the past, the profession has forged a solid and intelligent path to the future. Today, midwives are trained and certified and can deal with all kinds of medical conditions. Their professional status is unquestioned. Midwives are well-educated, well-respected and as valuable as any doctor to pregnant women. Thanks for the capable midwives of the past, today’s mothers-to-be have the choice – to have the best of all worlds, to choose to have a highly educated midwife by her side and doctor’s help, if needed.
Meet Nara in The Homes We Build on Ashes
- Christina Park, author of The Homes We Build On Ashes (Fall 2015)