In the Summer of 1993 I landed in a city far from home. A place where the heat was suffocating and the people spoke their own dialect of English which was difficult for me to comprehend. I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Familiar evergreens and mountains were replaced with decrepit brownstones and shiny high rise buildings. I had arrived in Baltimore. Only hours before, Tim dropped me off at the airport. We have never been good at saying good bye, especially in the early days of our relationship. With heavy hearts and lots of tears, we hugged one last time before he left me standing at the check in gate for United Airlines. Waving until I could no longer see the back end of his maroon 4 Runner, I entered the busy airport and boarded my flight to Baltimore. I was headed to Johns Hopkins School of Nursing and Tim was on his way to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb to complete a masters degree in outdoor curricula.
Johns Hopkins was not even on my radar until a few months before I submitted my application. One of my friends in my microbiology class knew I was applying to nursing schools and told me that Hopkins offered a 13 month accelerated BSN program for people who already had a bachelors degree. Yes, that was me. I had been introduced to the profession of nurse-midwifery by my other mother Carolyn when she referred me to one of her dearest friends, a nurse-midwife named Winnie McNamara for my first woman’s health exam when I was just 18 years old. By the end of my visit with Winnie, I knew what I wanted to become, a midwife like her. The way she dressed, her mannerisms, and most importantly the way she lived her life as a nurse-midwife was fascinating and exciting to me. Uno problema, I had no confidence when it came to science and math. My strengths were more along the lines of English and Art. And at that time in my life, I had not yet learned how to be resourceful in an effort to overcome obstacles. Ahhhh, the value of life lessons. So I put midwifery on the back shelf and followed the path of least resistance.
By the beginning of my sophomore year at WWU, I found my love of politics as well as a brief love of the professor who taught it. This is it, I remember thinking. My plan was to major in political science, minor in French, and become an attorney for UNICEF after completing a stint in the Peace Corp preferably on the Ivory Coast of Africa. Planning, always planning…
As part of my major I was allowed to complete an independent study. Still fascinated by all things birth, I wrote a 30 page paper titled The Politics of Midwifery. I devoured every book I could get my hands on that had anything to do with childbirth including eco-feminism, anthropology, women’s studies, and the history of medicine in the United States. By the end of the quarter, I knew my education would not lead me to law school. Instead, I had to figure out a way to get through the science classes, go to nursing school and on to graduate school for midwifery. Tim and I walked together at graduation in December 1991. (the 4 year plan plus one quarter) And in January I started my nursing prerequisites at Whatcom Community College while pulling shots at a Starbucks near Bellingham Bay.
I did a lot of soul searching during this time. I knew my end goal but was not confident that I had what it took to become what I wanted to be, a midwife. In my spare time I enrolled in a Doula certification program through the Seattle Midwifery School. ( And for all you birth gurus out there, it was taught by the infamous Penny Simkin) One night as I drifted off to sleep I prayed for a sign to cement my earthly calling. Please give me a sign that I should pursue midwifery were that last thoughts I was cognoscente of before I drifted off to sleep. Six hours later our phone rang. It was my chemistry lab partner who also happen to be a lay midwife working towards her certification. “Shelley, I am so sorry to wake you but would you be able to go to my house and get my birthing chair and bring it to me ? I could use your help at this birth. ” Without a second thought, I quickly dressed, kissed Tim good bye and flew out the door before the sun had had a chance to rise. I could not believe the universe would be so kind as to translate my prayer from the night before in such a manner. Seriously WTF !!! Before noon, in a farm house, north of Bellingham, I witnessed the first birth of a baby that I had ever seen. Not an easy birth, face presentation. But she knew she could do it, so she did. Grateful for this answered prayer.
Not long before I flew the nest for Baltimore, my great grandmother Violet was admitted to a nursing home north east of Seattle for a bout with pneumonia. I adored her and she adored me. With a delicate pot of African violets in hand, I went to her bedside to say good bye, since I would be leaving for Baltimore soon. We visited for about an hour and just as I was about to leave she said “So Shelley, your dad tells me that you want to be a midwife.” I nodded my head yes and told her I had been thinking about it. She went on to tell me “Well, you know, I was a midwife. I was what they used to call a farm midwife in North Dakota. I went to the births that the doctors could not make it to.” I was kind of stunned by what she shared. It was starting to all make sense to me; this calling to midwifery. At this point, I came to realize that I did not really have a choice in the matter; midwifery was in my blood and the Gods were calling my name. I gave my great grandma a long hug good bye. This was the last time I saw her. Violet Birks passed away a few days later, the same day the jet plane lifted me toward the eastern sky. I will always cherish her last earthly gift to me; she gave me a significant piece to my puzzle of my life.
Summer of 1993 was not my first time I had lived on the east coast. During my undergraduate degree while studying political science, I spent a quarter as an intern for our state senator Brock Adams in WA DC. This also happened to be during the same time our country was fighting in the first Persian Gulf war and before Monica Lewinsky changed our country’s notion of what an intern’s job description entailed. It was an incredible experience. Taking the shuttle from the Pentagon onto the hill every morning was an accomplishment in and of itself for this Skagit Valley girl. Fearless, I have always been some what fearless.
My second stint at east coast living was quite different. Nursing school at Johns Hopkins is a whole other world. Although we lived on campus housing in West Baltimore, the medical campus was directly in the middle of the inner city, East Baltimore. Culture shock. I had never witnessed such poverty and destitute in my life. It felt horrifying and kind of thrilling all at the same time. It was not long before I found my pack of nursing school buddies, Jen West, Kristin Koprowski, and Suzanne Vierra. We shared the best and the worst of times. Study sessions for pharmacology, public health rotations in the cockroach infested high rises in the inner city followed by mandatory debriefing sessions in the a cozy basement pub called PJs. Steamed shrimp with old bay seasoning and lots of butter washed down with cold beer on tap was a weekly event for the four of us and what made nursing school at Hopkins survivable. We shared stories about our clinicals, discussed whether we had met any interesting boys, and planned out our futures after Hopkins.
I mostly despised nursing school, except for the quarter we learned about obstetrics. I was all in. This was in my wheel house… and I excelled. On one special day, our OB professor invited a woman named Ruth Lubic to come speak to our class. I knew she was a CNM (certified nurse-midwife) in the rough parts of New York and was known for opening several birth centers in the under served boroughs. She was an older woman, probably in her early 60s at the time she came to speak with our class in 1993. Little did I know, Ruth had just been awarded the MacArthur Fellowship for her outstanding contribution to her profession in midwifery. She spent close to an hour talking with us about obstetrics, women’s health in the united states, and my favorite topic the profession of nurse-midwifery. Toward the end of her time with us she opened the time for questions. My inner core was trembling, that familiar old sign that something important was about to happen. I think I was the only one who rose my hand and since I was standing near the front door since all the seats were full, she quickly spotted me. Ugh. “Yes you, what is your question?” With my voice slightly trembling I asked her in front of all my 105 classmates how do you know you have what it takes to be a midwife? I did not plan on asking her that question, but it had been something I had been carrying around with me like a heavy back pack for the past 5 years. Without saying a word, she walked over in my direction and stretched out her arm to me. Without thinking, I took a few steps forward and reached out my hand to her to her. “You have what it takes. As a midwife you have to have the presence of mind and heart to always be able to meet a woman where she is at, to meet her half way. ” That moment carried me the rest of the way through nursing school at Hopkins. I was on a mission.
But then life happens. After graduation from Hopkins in summer of 1994 Tim and I began our new life on his mom’s house boat on Lake Union in Seattle. I took a job at Overlake Hospital in labor and delivery and the reality of the responsibility of being a nurse-midwife began to set in. In spite of my apprehension, I persevered applied and was accepted to the University of Washington nurse-midwifery program for the following Fall. It felt like I was pushing through, slinging the ice pick forward up the glacier; but my heart and spirit were not ready. Boughts of insomnia and anxiety were crowding my life and shaking my self confidence. After the first quarter of midwifery school, I stepped back, I had to. I was not ready. As difficult as this was to accept, I had no business adding more stress or sleep disruption to my life. Tim and my mom supported my decision but would not let me drop out all together. I transitioned into the perinatal masters degree program instead. No pressure, no nights. I was disappointed in myself, it felt like my body and my mind had failed me. I still longed to be a midwife and was never satisfied as an OB nurse. It just was not my time, breathe, keep on swimming…
By the time I graduated with my masters in nursing from the UW I was pregnant but did not know it quite yet. I wondered at first why I teared up during my presentation of my thesis on supporting women in labor and why I was so out of breathe walking up the steps to our loft bedroom at the houseboat. Preggo !! One of the best days of my life was the day I found out I was pregnant with Amelia. I told everyone. Fast forward, over the next six years, Tim and I built our home on Dragon fly ranch, had Amelia, moved to the ranch, had Ellie, went through hell and back, moved to Spokane, and had Charlie. During this entire time I kept seeking ways to pursue midwifery, to find my way back to MY path. And then one evening, when I was working at Deaconess, I was chatting with one of the pioneer CNMs of the Inland Empire, Catherine Shields. She said, “you know sweet life, this midwifery thing is never going to go away, so you might as well just figure out how to do it, and get it done.” Love her.
You know that saying you see on memes on Facebook “She thought she could, so she did.” Insert here. That is what happened, essentially. I thought I could, so I did with three kids under the age of 7, including one with special needs and working part time. Sometimes you just have to do it and figure out the details later. In 2008 I graduated from the University of Washington again, only this time I held the degree in my hand that I had always longed for in my heart. Unlike nursing school, I loved midwifery school. In fact the day our instructor taught us the cardinal movements and hand positioning during the birth of a baby, I began to cry. Once one midwife students start crying then all the rest join in gathering around, comforting and listening to her as they are taught to do in midwifery school. What a moment. I told my cohorts what I believed to be true; that being present and being the one to deliver the baby is not only a huge responsibility but also an honor. There is nothing more sacred then birth, don’t take it lightly. It was finally my turn, and it meant the world to me.
I have spent 10 years caring for pregnant women and catching babies as a nurse -midwife. I had some of the very best and some of the very worst days of my life during this decade. Last spring, in an effort for a better work-life balance, I decided to let go of the birthing aspect of being a midwife. However, I continue to spend my days listening to and meeting women of all ages “where they are at” … extending my hand out to theirs in hopes of helping them to find those wings and keep on flying…. To be a midwife means to be with woman. I am a midwife, I am with her.