Waiting for Agnes

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The revolving door November 9, 2010

Filed under: Midwifery — titchandboofer @ 12:17 pm
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Midwifery work often dances precariously along the line between professional distance and intimacy. Every shift, every scenario, every woman draws out, demands even, different degrees of personal exposure, disclosure and committment. I’ve looked after couples who’ve elicited nothing other than professional information and education from their first clinic visit of pregnancy, right through to the time they wave me goodbye from their doorstep, baby tucked tight in their arms. And then I’ve spent as little as a handful of hours with couples who have grilled me on every aspect of my personal life, education history, marital status, parenting choices, thoughts on reincarnation, favourite foreign languages, nothing off limits for the fierce interrogator.

I know that women and their partners do this for a few different reasons:

General curiosity – women are universally (slight generalisation, but stay with me) fascinated by other women’s birthing experiences, collecting them and filing them away as sources of inspiration, horror, joy, fear and justification. What’s the biggest baby, longest labour, shortest labour, loudest screamer, biggest pain in the arse whiner that you’ve seen?

Wanting to trust – amongst the technical negotiation and the general birthy chitchat, couples slip in little personal questions, subtly probing…Who is this woman? Does she see us? Does she hear us? Does she know our life? Who is she to touch me? Can I believe her? Will she keep us safe?

Distraction – 99% of people in the same space as a labouring woman will, at some point, seem to feel an overwhelming urge to fill the lulls of labour with conversation. And I get it, it can be an odd experience to be awaiting so much action and yet to be in the midst of so much seeming inaction. The woman labours, sometimes loudly, sometimes not, but always with pauses for rest. Her head is buried in a pillow, blocking out the world. The midwife sits, close but not intruding, maybe murmuring encouragement but not filling the room, not dragging the woman into her thinking brain. So there is quiet. People aren’t very practiced in being quiet, silent, still. They are there to support and silence challenges their ideas of what it means to be supportive, to be helpful. They don’t know the power of simply being present. Undistractedly, purposefully present. So, into this quiet they press questions – How many days a week do you work? Do you have kids? How many babies have you delivered? How much do you get paid? How old are you? And on and on and on. Quiet, brief answers and some people will get the hint – Shut Up. Some won’t.

The top three questions: Do you have kids? (ie Have You Suffered As I Do?). Are you married? What does your partner do?

So it is that I can be in the unusual position of having to decide whether to out myself every time I go to work. I know some couples won’t really care about the answers to their questions. They are filling space and time, making noise. Or they are curious, but not invested in the answer. Some are surprised. Some are interested, especially about how we came by the small person. Some are neutral.

And some are horrified, shrieky-clutch-their-pearls-horrified. It is these people that make me wary. It is the experiences of seeing someone shrink away, shielding their baby from the scary dyke midwife, that make me pause. Fair or not, I judge. I weigh up the likelihood of their trust in me hinging on my answer. Conservative, foreign couple, large tutting and tsking family in attendance? I’m straight as can be, married to a generic ‘health professional’. Kind of hippy, patchouli scented couple, with doula by their side? I’m out and marching. They’re the easy choices, but my there is a whole lot of grey in between. I know this flies in the face of ‘being true to one’s self’, that it shouldn’t matter to me what near-strangers think of their midwife’s sexuality. But it does matter. It isn’t about my hurt feelings, or my objection to being grilled about whether I’m gay because I was poorly parented. It’s about the fragile string of trust I hold with a woman and her family. She needs to feel safe. Don’t I have to be what she needs me to be?

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13 Responses to “The revolving door”

  1. Sister D Says:

    Sister F, I relate to this in a big way. It’s a dilemma, no doubt about it, as to how much we should hide our true selves in order to be what we sense our women need us to be. I too similarly struggle with the idea of shouldn’t I be what the woman needs me to be? Invariably almost everyone asks the question “so do you have kids?”. At times I see looks of pity when I say I don’t, or more commonly, looks of “how could you possibly understand what I’m going through then you fradulent excuse for a midwife”. So, do I tell a white lie & say little Sally-Sue* is 3 now, & Little Johnny*, well he’s 18 months & by gosh he looks just like his father… I have lied ONCE (through a misunderstanding I didn’t have the heart to correct) and the woman visibly relaxed and told me she just knew from my wonderful care that I had kids & how much better she felt because her midwife first time around was shit & she’s sure it was because she hadn’t personally given birth (this woman later asked for an epidural, was clearly transitional & I told her I had full faith she could do this all on her own. her response was “did you have an epidural?” to which I said “i’ve never had an epidural” which technically was not a lie! she then happily birthed unmedicated, totally proud of herself, & sure she could do it since I did it).
    I’m not ashamed to be a child-less midwife, nor do I believe it makes me less able to care or enhance a woman’s own personal birthing experience. And yet….don’t I have to be what she needs me to be? The flip side of the coin is that I have a pact with myself to never ever lie to a woman who has trusted me with the greatest thing anyone can ever be trusted with. Should she later find out that Sally-Sue & Little Johnny are in their pre-conception state, will she then wonder what else I’ve lied about? Was I lying when I told her she was doing a great job? Was I lying when I told her it isn’t her fault her labour obstructed? Was I lying when I told her her baby will get the hang of breast feeding given time?
    Whether it’s outing oneself as a lesbian, or offering an admission of childlessness, who knows the right thing to do. If you work it out my friend, please share.
    * please note my children would never be called sally-sue or little johnny. just felt it important to clarify 🙂

    • Thank you, Sister D, I am so glad you’re not ashamed to be a childless midwife, and nor should you be – I’m sure your passion and dedication to this otherworldly job we have will not alter, whatever the state of your own uterus. I’m the same midwife I was before small came along, if anything a fraction less committed – small has simply become my biggest priority. xx
      ps. Also glad to see note re children’s names. I occasionally have periods of lurrrving double-barreled, americanesque names like Billy-Joe and Mary-Alice. Then I remember that we are not living in a 1950s American novel.

  2. Alex Says:

    Your blog is one of the few of my friends’ that I really enjoy reading because I’m left interested and often a tiny bit wiser. Despite that not being a huge mountain, I usually resist the climb! Xx

  3. Jess Says:

    I want to know what the impetus to write this post was – was it the pearls or the patchouli?

    As a doula, I can’t avoid coming out. The relationship is too intimate. The exception is for last minute clients who are just after someone by their side in labour – no other support. My biggest issue is finding the right moment – and usually it needs to be early in the piece because otherwise, that line of trust about which you speak can be jeopardised in a lying by omission kind of way. And, unlike you, if a client responds badly then we can happily part ways knowing that we’re the wrong fit. Not possible in a hospital environment, I realise. (Not that this has ever happened to me but it is possible – born agains need birth support too!)

    So much process in negotiating human relationships. It’s tiring sometimes, isn’t it?!?

    • Early in the piece is definitely key…the impetus for this was neither pearls nor patchouli (now that would have been a great title) but somewhere in the grey in the middle – I was guessing closer to pearls. I was answering vaguely about my nonspecific partner, who works in nonspecific healthcare. But the woman’s partner and mother kept peppering me with questions, wanting more and more details and I was flailing about on the edge of this absolute abyss of Lies! That’s what got me to thinking ‘How am I in this position? Why am I so uncomfortable about just telling it how it is?’.

      Tiring indeed!

  4. LMF1 Says:

    All a woman needs her midwife to be is someone who cares about her and her baby, someone who will fight for her, hold her hand, and get her through one of the hardest things she will ever do. I’m not sure why such things matter so much to women. I made the mistake once of telling a woman in the antenatal period about my first birth experience and then when she was in labour and begging for an epidural she said to me “why won’t you give it to me? You had one! You didn’t have to feel this!” I now only divulge the very basic details when asked. I think the less they know about us the better.

  5. […] The following conversation, from a time back before I grew so wary, is one small example of why coming out at work can be so problematic. […]

  6. M-H Says:

    I find this quite fascinating. No-one would quiz their GP like this, or their physio, or their dentist. Or, even, a nurse on an acute ward. I’ve had three kids and I can honestly say I had no interest whatsoever in the marital status, motherhood status or any other personal matter of any midwife I’ve ever encountered. I was only interested in how they related to me as a labouring woman. That was in the ‘old’ hospital system of the 70s in NZ, but my kids were all born in ‘maternity hospitals’, so I encountered a fair few midwives.

    The only one I remember was the one wearing a cross, in a small-town hospital, who told me sharply to stop blaspheming when things were getting a bit tough. I swore at her. 🙂

    • You’re right, and no-one would quiz an obstetrician either. The phenomenon seems pretty confined to midwives. I think it says something about the vulnerability of many women when they’re giving birth in this current culture of birth-fear. Midwives don’t have the reputation of godlike rescuers, unlike the obstetricians. In fact many people won’t have heard of a midwife until they’re giving birth and even then they think we’re nurses. Yet the midwives are the ones actually present, the ones that have to be leant on and trusted. So I guess people are trying to figure out this unknown quantity.

  7. Katrina Says:

    Very well thought out, great insights and so well written. Thoroughly enjoying every post, you really need to be thinking about getting your writing published, no question. Are you really just 24? Wow.

  8. […] written before about coming out in my job as a midwife: here and here. And some are horrified, shrieky-clutch-their-pearls-horrified. It is these people that […]


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