A Layered Question: Midwifery Philosophy 101

“How do we address public health outcomes while caring for one family at a time as if all public health depends on only their outcome?”

Let’s take a look at this multifaceted question:

How does a person navigate the stormy waters of pregnancy healthcare if you are anything other than a 5’7 140lb white, married (to a man) woman who identifies as such, hovering in the middle to upper class?

As you can see we are dealing with multiple layers of the human experience and their effects on pregnancy healthcare: your health before pregnancy even starts, BMI/Obesity, race, sexual and partnership identification, lifestyle choices, and economic status. I hope to address these topics from my midwife-minded perspective in the coming posts, starting here with our general approach and philosophy regarding pregnancy healthcare.

For my friends in the north: I am going to stretch this a little further and choose to add the extraordinary complication of living in the South to this discussion. I did not know, and could not understand, as a northern midwife, that my southern counterparts and the families they serve face challenges far far far (did I say far?!) beyond what we do in the North. I knew of course that things were different but I didn’t really understand.

I have tried 85 times to write about what it’s like to live in a place where faith-based healthcare makes room for providers to decline to mention during prenatal care the option for genetic screening (taking this as one example of dozens). They do not inform patients of these options because their faith (read: the PROVIDER’s faith, not the FAMILY’s faith) does not allow consideration of options that include the termination of a pregnancy under any circumstance. So there is no option for screening given. Not even when a pregnancy poses danger to a woman’s or pregnant person’s life. Not even when that baby will live less than an hour and in terrible agony. Not even when a family would choose to live life with an intensely high medical needs child, or one affected by a genetic anomaly, but wants the opportunity to prepare their home, family, work, and resources to meet their needs. Not even when the mental health of the mother or pregnant person is in jeopardy.

I’ve read charts here with “nuchal translucency” (a screen completed prior to the 14th week) noted at 22 weeks. There’s no such thing!  But this deception is allowed and encouraged….and this is only the tip of the iceberg. Want a tubal ligation but your husband isn’t present to consent?  You may have difficulty accessing this surgical form of family planning in the south. Of important note is that there are providers in these systems who do not practice this way but the system supports those who do. There are four major healthcare systems in this city—three of those with multiple hospitals that support providers who practice faith-based medicine according to the model that the physician’s faith determines your healthcare options.

If you are a person of faith, this might sound nice on the surface, but I would put forth that it is our religious leaders who should help us navigate the decisions we are faced with in our lives. They have training and education that enables counseling and support for our spirituality.  They help us stay aligned with our religious values and belief systems in all areas, including our medical decision-making. Our physicians and providers should offer us healthcare options, discussions, consent, and treatment based on shared-decision making. We are responsible for ensuring we integrate our religious, social, and cultural outlook into our healthcare by engaging all of the systems and people that matter to us in that process. At the same time, many systems are designed to ensure that culturally relevant care is nearly impossible to acheive and it should not be the burden of the consumer to correct this but the burden of each provider, administrator, and system to make it right .

The care options that are here are not healthcare as we know it in the North. For all of you, I know, this post so far will seem frankly unbelievable and unrelatable. The posts linked to below about health and lifestyle choices will seem dated and broad. You are working on terminology, micro-aggressions, systemic racism, and deep systems issues. We are working on basic access and consent issues very much related to the ethics behind Informed Consent and the Nuremberg Code couched in overt racism packed in systemic racism, micro-aggressions, and deep systems issues.

Conversations about lifestyle, access, and health disparities are coming into the light in many corners here. Questions are being asked:  Why is it like this?  Does it have to be like this?  What it would look like if healthcare wasn’t like this?  The midwives here have been advocating and caring for families in all the ways possible—faith based and non-faith based. And even with the two of us new to practice here, there are five of us in or adjacent to the city I’m living in now. Five who are practicing in community-based settings. Five who can create protocols and follow guidelines appropriate to the profession and their community.

We need space for conversation and inquiry here, we need routes for education and change. The South is not some backwards “other”—I am not at all trying to say that the South “needs saving”. I am new here, but I’m right here where this community is at: listening, participating, wondering. Pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, parenting, general health. These communities are rising up and looking for solutions to the very real barriers they face. I recognize that process. It has a familiar rhythm, grit, and complexity. There is tension, anger, frustration, desperation, and there are large gaps between what is known and what is understood.

For our practice it boils down to this: How do we address public health outcomes while caring for one family at a time as if all public health depends on only their outcome?

I have answered that question many times in posts and articles and interviews.  I stand by my answer.  We must be kind and use our skills to meet people where they are at.  The rest will follow. I am committed to this model of care which leaves room for so much possibility.

I have the great privilege of holding a license to practice midwifery and of being supported by a local, long-standing clinic and non-profit organization that constantly looks to be a partner in community solutions. I have my clinical experience, my willingness to learn and to meet people right where they are at. I have the fundamental belief that kindness matters and that none of us has anything that matters until all of us have access to reach our potential. This awareness and mindset allow me the opportunity to be a part of families’ lives in the very ways midwives have since the earliest days of society.  In the very ways midwives all over the south and indeed the world are a part of healthcare systems, families, and community health.

I have the unique benefit of working with a practice partner who is fierce about identifying solutions and solving problems. She is brilliant, experienced, kind, and unafraid of stepping in to dismantle the hardships families face. We are not looking at pregnancy as an isolated, siloed experience. It exists in the layers and complexities of the lives of the people and families we serve. We are working on a number of projects right now centered around how we acknowledge and prevent non-pregnancy related medical and socially generated pathologies from determining pregnancy outcomes. My practice partner states over and over again that these problems require providers to change their understanding and behaviors,  and stop promoting the false idea that “these women” and “those families” just don’t want good health badly enough.

We believe the barriers that have separated “Self” from “Other” need to fall—we are all of us people just trying our best to give our all and find love, connection, and health in our lives.  We are unique individuals with complex cultures but we share so very much. What if as providers we use our licenses to open up this conversation and create new paths to robust health for all families?  That is the work we are engaged in here in the South. And each micro-community has to find its way in the larger social construct. We want to pull apart the loaded, layered question and answer simply, “yes, I believe in you, your interest and capacity for learning is vast, and together we can find solutions that meet your needs in the right way at the right time for you.”  There is nothing to stop us from applying this philosophy of care to pregnant people of all races, sizes, orientations, cultural backgrounds, and socioeconomic truths.

Next Up:

Midwifery for All Series

Size Friendly Care


Author: Midwifery

Jodilyn is a licensed midwife (WA, TN) and certified professional midwife. Recently relocated to Memphis, TN, and passionate about the intersection of social justice and perinatal healthcare. She owned Essential Birth & Family Center in South Seattle's Seward Park neighborhood. She is co-founder of South Seattle Women's Health Foundation, an organization dedicated to providing midwifery-led maternity care in a collaborative community-based setting and to increasing capacity within the community to support healthy birth and breastfeeding practices.