Midwest Maternal Child Institute, Chicago, Illinois, United States
Photography by Matthew Paulson
All living things have a natural urge to sing. Humans and other mammals, birds, insects, and even the great, extinct woolly mammoth sing special songs to call their children home. Though singing is universal, many people feel uncomfortable singing, as if we’ll be judged the moment we expose our voices. I know this feeling quite well. When I was a child, I was told by a music teacher for Easter celebration not to sing, but to “lip sync and let your classmates sing.” He announced to the class that my voice was not suitable for Sunday choir. Apparently my voice was flat; I was tone deaf and off-key. In general, I have always found my voice disagreeable to hear on voice mails or tape recordings. Yet despite this negative feedback, I believe strongly that song is a way of lifting the spirit, that singing is the best exercise for a healthy soul. And it is particularly crucial for women in labor.
A woman in labor can find so much strength when she finds her voice. I have heard women scream, moan, howl, and shout as they pushed their babies into the world. But the most extraordinary example of a woman finding her voice in labor was when Ki brought her whole church choir to her labor to sing her baby into the world. At the time of her labor, she already had a tight community of “sister friends.” They often got together to share stories, care for each other’s children, and sing. She lived far on the South Side of Chicago, and by the time we arrived, Ki’s “sister friends” had already assumed many of the duties of labor support and midwifery. Most impressively, they were singing—all at once and differently—polyrhythms, bird-like sounds, and sweet melodies. The sisters wore long dresses and head scarves in multiple colors. They raised their arms as they swayed in song, like one unified wave. Ki moaned. They sang harmony and carried her beyond her discomfort. She even sang with them, sometimes setting the tone herself, and they would follow; other times they would lead and she follow. She seemed to understand that the act of singing, of living in song, would both soothe and energize the deepest, most capable part of herself.
At times, her song sounded agonizing. Ki faced her final contractions by belting out sounds that went higher and higher: AH, AH, AH. The sisters followed with complex and intertwining melodies. The whole room sounded like a tropical forest with multitudes of birds chirping, singing, and crowing. They were a most magnificent choir of women, mothers, friends, daughters, and wives. The whole community cooed the baby down.
I was a tad giddy inside, feeling the groove, the melody of the women; it made me realize just how much we repress within ourselves, the gifts of letting our spirits out through song. What would delivery rooms be like if the chorus of women were encouraged to sing? What would our staff’s morale be if they could sing while they worked?
Ki’s husband sat behind her. He did not sing, instead he moved his head with the rhythm of the song. As the baby descended, her sisters reached in to catch the infant. We handed them warm blankets, and Ki and her sisters caught her daughter Mia. Mia looked up at the community of women and let out her own first song.
MARY SOMMERS, CPM, holds a master’s degree in public service from DePaul University. She is the director of academic affairs for the Midwest Maternal Child Institute, and has over 20 years of experience in community health. Early in her career, she co-founded Chicago Community Midwives, a nonprofit home birth service. She has also worked as a midwife, doula, and lactation consultant for various private practices in the Chicago area and Madison, and has directed several nurse-midwifery practices. Mary has attended and assisted at more than 1,000 births in the United States, Mexico, and Malawi.
In her novel More Than a Midwife, she shares stories of glory, grace, and joy, as well as heartbreak and tragedy from her extensive experiences.