Birthing Knowledge: the reluctant midwife


The woman is obviously in labor. She’s hunched over a bed, leaning against the wall, making moaning sounds. Her sister is next to her soothing her with calming words. And I am there to deliver the baby. She lies down on her side and suddenly looks me in the eye and screams, “The baby is coming!” I desperately fiddle with my kit across the bed, trying to put on the gloves. They get sticky from the sweat on my hands, and immediately curl up. “I wanna push, I wanna push,” she halfway screams with panic in her eyes. “Can I push?” Paralyzed, with a glove halfway on, I sit down on the bed, between her legs and see the baby’s head crowning. Remember what you were taught. “If you feel like you need to push, then you should push” I say. And she immediately starts pushing, her sister holding her halfway up behind her. “I don’t wanna do this,” I exclaim in panic, and I get up, walking a few steps away. Like, my whole being just wants to leave the room. “I can’t do this, I don’t wanna be here! I don’t want to be a midwife!” The responsibility the suddenness, the emergency of the situation is too intense. I’m not prepared for this. But there’s no one else. There’s no time for me to organize my kit and fuck these sticky gloves. I cringe them back off, sit back down between the birthing woman’s legs and reach out. Catch the baby.

And so, I became a reluctant midwife. The scene was a role-play, and it played out during an introductory course to midwifery, that I attended a few weeks back. The birth was an exercise in putting the practical skills we had learned to use, and we, the women who attended the course, acted out different scenarios. I was overwhelmed by the very real feelings and reactions, by our collective immersion. Birth is a potent event. Even though it was just pretend and the womb was made from neoprene and the baby inside was a doll, the role of the midwife was awesome to me, and was met with a powerful, spontaneous resistance. 

During four days ten women shared their knowledge and experiences with pregnancy, birth and motherhood. There was much for me to learn, since I don’t know much about what it is like to be a woman living in Cape Town; what choices and ideas that are important here. There was much for me to learn because I have never been pregnant myself. There was also much for me to learn because I led my own mother out of this life just about a year ago.

And now I find myself thinking and living and learning about motherhood every day.

During the scene where I had the role as midwife, I was surprised by the strength of my own reaction, and I started laughing. Luckily so did the others. I laughed so hard, but my tears still came from the fear. We laughed together at the very human moment of meeting a threshold, of meeting resistance.

Meeting the threshold; knowledge about pregnancy and birth is embodied, it is lived, it is political and it is gendered. And to study these things I cannot pretend to be without body, life, politics and gender. This new fieldwork is birthing knowledge; meeting the resistance, meeting the thresholds with openness, living them, and letting them go when ready. As the reluctant midwife.