Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Labor of love

Mary Oak
Seattle, Washington, USA


“Newborn and Mama” Photo by Susan Strohm.

Each week my elderly father and I watch babies being born. In the silver-shadowed flickers of a television, we sit as we often did in my childhood. Now in the spectral shade of his decelerated years, I care for him. He spends a lot of time watching TV. I join him weekly to watch “Call the Midwife,” a BBC production based on Jennifer Worth’s memoir that brings to life her experiences as a midwife in the East End of London during the 1950s.

Each time a birth is shown my father wells up with tears. I am not used to seeing him cry and each episode, he does. A baby! How can one not be moved by that victorious moment of emergence? His response moves me. Born in 1916, he became a father—my father— at the height of hospital deliveries in the US, when births were anesthetized and off-limits to anyone but the obstetrician and nurses. Midwives were considered antiquated, and homebirths: primitive. This simulation is as close as he will ever come to witnessing childbirth. Striking, how real newborns are used on the set of “Call the Midwife,” nothing like the older roly-poly babies typically seen in film, too robust to consider to be neonates, unless you do not know how infants at birth really look.

I do. Long before childbirth was considered a proper topic for a TV drama, I attended a score of natural births at home. I participated as friend, as midwives’ assistant and as labor coach (a “doula” nowadays). Giving birth to my own four children at home was my best instruction of all.

My first encounter with childbirth was as a young woman when I lived in Philadelphia, training to be a dancer. I witnessed my teacher, Gitta, shifting in her pregnancy, dancing through the phases and transformations of gestation. As her belly rounded and breasts filled, I caught scent of another dance: motherhood and the mystery of birth. Gitta, who had spent hours every day in the studio to master dance, who had guided dancers into trusting their own bodies, taught innovative forms of improvisation and created pieces in struggle and grace, was moving into a new direction and finding new ground. In late pregnancy, she had mostly stopped dancing but still moved from deep center. Rooted in poise, she followed her breath into birth’s domain.

I was staying at my dancer boyfriend’s apartment right around the corner from the dance studio-home of Gitta and her husband, Manfred. A phone call woke us up in the wee hours, just after she gave birth. Stumbling with sleepiness and excitement, we rushed around the corner and bounded up the stairs. Manfred welcomed us, beaming, and moved close to his new family. We stood in the doorway, looking on, as the newborn enfolded in Gitta’s arms gazed steadily up at her. Radiance flowed between them in a nativity scene. A baby!—wide-awake, alert, deep eyes probing.

We stood aside, dazzled and amazed as we silently welcomed this new one: a baby! Betsy, the midwife, greeted us and brought the placenta over in a bowl so we could watch her examine it. She stretched out the amniotic sac, translucent and expanding, and pointed out where it had ruptured. Then she let the membrane rest, wrinkled in a heap, beside the gleaming rawness of placenta. She showed how its veins and arteries branched into a microcosmic tree of life. Still reeling in wonder, we watched as the baby, instinctually wise, rooted in to nurse. It was then that Manfred announced her name: Aura. I realized in all the excitement until then, I had not even known she was a girl. Simply “baby” was enough, not yet differentiated.

A few years later, Betsy attended the birth of my first son at home. Giving birth in this peaceful and powerful way sealed my conviction to devote myself to this form of female empowerment. I began training to guide parents to give birth, naturally, at home. I assisted Joanne, who balanced her obstetric skill with an ability to meet any situation with love and the spirit of adventure. At many births, another midwife joined Joanne. Iris brought color, like her namesake the Rainbow Goddess. She was keen and direct, fire to Joanne’s water in a complementary way, no sizzle.

I saw firsthand how midwives understand and respect pregnancy as a natural process. They respect the birthing force and trust its course, recognizing the tides of labor and respecting its rhythms. They can stand by and let delivery come in its own time, but are also medically trained to intervene in case of emergency. Midwives support the mother, guide the father, bring reassurance to the family through their grounded presence, teach infant care, and nurture the nurturer.

I accompanied this intrepid team to many dwellings, to kneel beside many beds. I washed dishes in many sinks, from a barren ghetto kitchen to one that belonged to a gourmet cook with platters of exotic foods. None of the settings mattered in the moments of first squall and squeal of a newborn welcomed warmly into the world, named or unnamed: a baby!

There were the straightforward births termed “unremarkable” in medical parlance, (although they were all extraordinary to behold!). There were urgencies and emergencies, too. A sudden calmness descended when Joanne and Iris moved in response to a drop in fetal heart rate and needed to get baby out fast. Joanne deftly handled situations such as shoulder dystocia or a nuchal cord (coiled around the baby’s neck). There was the limp baby tinged blue that needed gentle stimulation; another that needed more extensive suctioning than a bulb syringe could offer, when I witnessed Joanne skillfully use a suction catheter. All these dangers were handled so smoothly that sometimes it was not even apparent that anything was amiss to the parents. They were carried away in the bliss of welcoming their newborn.

I was honored to be a part of birth stories as they unfolded, each with its own distinct arc. There were labors that stalled out. Some responded to homeopathic remedies and picked up again. Some did not. Some mothers were transferred to the hospital to be induced, leaving them relieved or disappointed or both.

Laboring mothers often clutched my hands during contractions, easing in between, then gripped again in the next intense wave. Many times as a baby’s head crowned, the midwife guided the mother to touch the emerging head; that touch resulting in a wild exclamation of “a baby!” Often this outcry was repeated again when the new creature was placed in her arms, met in urgent astonishment, “a baby!”—A baby opening her eyes, inquisitive; a baby opening his eyes, searching.

Being peripheral to the midwives, I was the one to warm and open the sterile packs prepared by the parents in taped paper bags, baked in their home ovens: a couple of sheets, a few towels, lots of washcloths, a couple of mama nighties and pairs of socks, a bunch of receiving blankets, some cloth diapers, a warm baby blanket and cotton t-shirts and soft hats, and every now and then, a pair of baby booties.

Receiving the newborns in all their vulnerability, enfolding them in warmth, I beheld an unexpected ancient light shining through. I wondered why so many newborns look like Tibetan lamas; each baby wizened with an atmosphere of profound stillness. Each time I was present at a birth, it was an honor to witness this primal gateway, on one hand the flesh and blood of it, the stretch and sear of it, but always the sacredness, the air thick with invisible presence all around. Often it was my job to record the exact moment of the baby’s first cry. A marking of the sands starting to flow through the hourglass of their lives—entering into hours, the invisible made visible, blank page, open book, all possibilities aflood.

Thirty years later, the sands of time have washed away the details and distinctiveness of each of those blessed and strenuous labors. I would have to fill in the outlines of each birth with imaginative elaboration. But wonder reverberates in remembering the moment of a new human being’s arrival on earth, regardless of where and to whom the birth took place. The essential gestures of those moments remain: the parents in awe, counting the fingers and toes and realizing their child, in that moment, is perfect. It is the blaze of glory, the herald angels singing of a divine child born in a humble place, the adoration of the magi, kings kneeling down to the newborn. It is my father in ethereal light, weeping quietly when he sees a newborn on the screen.

Any week, my father’s transition could come: nativity in reverse, last breath absorbed back into the invisible. When the hourglass of his life is upended so the sands run the other way, may his death not be a snatching. When his time comes to depart here, may he be tenderly welcomed into a new light. May midwives of the mystery tend to him as he enters another realm: a baby.



MARY OAK, MFA, is the author of “Heart’s Oratorio: One Woman’s Journey through Love, Death and Modern Medicine” (Goldenstone Press, 2013), a series of linked personal essays about living with congenital heart disease within the context of sacred ecology and deep story. Mary teaches writing and spiritual studies at Antioch University and works as a writing guide and developmental editor in Seattle. To find out more about her work, see www.MaryOak.com


Spring 2019  |  Sections  |  Birth, Pregnancy, & Obstetrics


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