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?