Today, on International Day of the Midwife, I want to pay tribute to the midwives of the world, past, present, and future. I will begin with two of my favorite midwives of all time. Puah and Shiphrah.
Here is their story as told in the Bible in the first chapter of Exodus (KJV):
And the king of Egypt spake to the Hebrew midwives, of which the name of the one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah: And he said, When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the stools; if it be a son, then ye shall kill him: but if it be a daughter, then she shall live. But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive.
And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said unto them, Why have ye done this thing, and have saved the men children alive? And the midwives said unto Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwives come in unto them. Therefore God dealt well with the midwives: and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty. And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that he made them houses [i.e. households, posterity].
Puah and Shiphrah were not afraid of Pharoah. These brave midwives refused to be complicit in the mass extermination of a people. They refused to let their political leader dictate how many children was “too many” or at what size a people were “too numerous.” And they were savvy about it. Instead of outright refusing his orders (assuring their own deaths and necessitating that someone else who would fulfill them would be called on to take their place), they used their heads to find a way to successfully circumvent Pharoah’s plan. Puah and Shiphrah feared (as in, to reverence; to have a reverential awe; to venerate) their Creator and Life-giver above all else, and because of their love for their Life-giver, they chose to protect all the lives sent to Earth from that Source, regardless of race or gender.
It may appear that it is always the men in the scriptures who always do the delivering out of bondage, the saving, and the rescuing, but the truth is that God’s plans usually start with women. For example, without the courage and dedication of Puah, Shiphrah, and other midwives like them who chose to ignore the commands of the Pharaoh and do what they knew was right, Moses would not have survived to lead the children of Israel out of bondage. In fact, one could say that these women were the “first delivers” of Israel because they delivered the deliverer.
I love Puah and Shiphrah.
The next midwife I want to pay tribute to is Emma Andersen Liljenquist. In the late 1800’s, Emma attended a course in midwifery after Mormon church president Brigham Young had urged many women to receive medical training to meet the needs of the Utah’s growing families. (You can read more about Utah’s midwifery history here.) Emma recorded these experiences from her years as a midwife among Utah’s early settlers:
Many times when one of my patients was seriously ill, I have asked my Heavenly Father for assistance, and in every case it was given to me. One in particular was a lady who had just given birth to a baby and hemorrhage set in. The husband called the doctor, but he did not realize that it was so serious. I . . . asked the Lord to help us. The hemorrhage ceased and I did the necessary things for her. When the doctor arrived, he said he could hardly believe what had happened, but said I had done exactly what he would have done. . . . I have brought over one thousand babies [into the world]. Once again I give thanks to my Heavenly Father for His help and the strength the Lord has given me, for without it I could not have rendered this service to my sisters in our community. (Daughters in My Kingdom, p. 55-56)
I am in awe of the great strength of midwives like Emma. I can’t imagine how humbling it must be to know that you are overseeing the entrance of another human soul into mortality and protecting the sacred vessel bringing that soul here: the mother. Midwives are given life-saving inspiration.
Next, I honor a woman whose midwife blood flows through my childrens’ own bodies. My mother-in-law was born in New Zealand, the daughter of a transplanted cockney naval sailor, the son of a London midwife named Ann. When I learned a few years ago that my children’s great-great-grandmother was a midwife, I was giddy. I had long harbored a wish that I would find a midwife in my own ancestral line. This wasn’t quite the same, but it was the closest I had come (besides having a registered nurse grandmother who attended births).
After I learned of Ann’s profession, my mind started spinning with questions I wished I could ask her… How did she become a midwife? How many births did she attend in her lifetime? What were her own births like? And then I also got thinking about my own births, the births of Ann’s great-great-grandchildren. I truly believe that every single birth is attended by angels, and I believe that most of the time those angels are individuals invested in the mother and her baby through ties of blood or friendship. And it suddenly felt so clear and certain in my heart that Ann has attended every. one. of. my. births. And that gave me happy chills. Suddenly, I felt like we knew each other deeply.
Last, I honor an American midwife who exemplifies all of the best attributes of true midwives, Robin Lim. She was named CNN’s “Hero of the Year” in 2011 for her work among the poorest mothers of Indonesia. Through her clinics, families who would otherwise be unable to afford care are offered free prenatal, birthing, and medical services. I love what Robin said as she received her award from CNN: “Every baby’s first breath on Earth could be one of peace and love. Every mother should be healthy and strong. Every birth could be safe and loving. But our world is not there yet.”
Lim became a midwife after her sister — and her sister’s baby — died from complications during pregnancy several years ago. She and her husband then sold their home in Hawaii and moved to Bali where she opened a clinic. She has since delivered thousands of babies and likely saved thousands of lives. The people call her “Ibu,” Mother. This video shares more about Ibu Robin and her work…
Thank you, Robin, Ann, Emma, Puah and Shiphrah. Thank you Mary and Nedra, the midwives who attended me through my home births. Thank you midwife Mary Langlois for offering a free doula training to the community (and me) six years ago. Thank you to the midwives-in-training and those yet to be. May you find great joy in your calling! Thank you to all the midwives who sacrifice their sleep, their comfort, their children’s school events, and so much more in order to tenderly attend the mothers in their care. You are changing the world, and we love you for it.
Happy International Day of the Midwife!