I am about six months pregnant right now, which means that my backaches and I am inundated with a list of things that I am supposed to eat or not eat and do or not do. According to Mayo Clinic, I should avoid certain types of fish including swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and tilefish but not shrimp, crab, canned tuna, salmon, Pollock, catfish, cod, or tilapia. The fish in the latter group, however, should only be eaten in moderation. I shouldn’t take a very hot bath or get into the hot tub. It’s okay to eat hard cheeses like cheddar, feta, and provolone but not soft cheeses like brie, goat’s cheese, and gorgonzola. Lunchmeat is out, as is sushi. Tylenol, Metamucil, and Neosporin are okay if you get sick but Benadryl isn’t okay until after the first trimester and most other drugs are out until the baby is weaned.
Being pregnant has made me even more cognizant of the materials and histories that are produced about pregnancy. Recently, there have been several documentaries made advocating for certain visions of women and reproductive health. One of the earliest and perhaps most controversial is Ricki Lake’s The Business of Being Born (Yes, it’s the same Ricki Lake you used to watch when you were home sick from school). Produced in 2008, the documentary is a product of Lake’s disappointment with her first birth and advocates for natural birth as something that women should be encouraged to try. Watching the video was a disturbing experience. All I could think as I watched a woman moaning in pain and squatting in a corner was while giving birth, “Get her an epidural! She’s in pain.” People have criticized the film for being over-the-top and distorting medical statistics to scare women about hospital birth. At one point, one of the film’s interviewees compares women who have Caesarean sections to animals and suggests that since animals often reject babies born by C-section, women who have C-sections may also have a hard time bonding with their children.
The fact that I am pregnant and my newfound interest in women’s reproductive issues has led me to explore the history of midwives and obstetrics within Mormonism. I first encountered the history of Mormon midwives in books like Claudia Bushman’s Mormon Sisters and in the edited diaries of Patty Bartlett Sessions. What struck me in those initial encounters with midwifery is the community that it created for the women involved. In her diaries from Laie, Julina Lambson Smith wrote about her daily experiences. Interspersed with accounts of endless sewing, cooking, and ironing are brief mentions of her trips to deliver the babies of other women. In 1886, she delivered the baby of Lily Barrell. After laboring for five hours, Lily had a daughter at 1:48 a.m. Julina didn’t get to bed till half past three and napped for much of the following the day. A few days later, at 1 p.m., she was called to help Sister Noall. She was not able to leave her till five the next morning but was able to deliver her of a healthy baby girl. What emerges from Julina’s diaries is a sense of pride in her work. In an autobiography she wrote for the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, Julina wrote that “it was always a joy for me to place a tiny one for the first time in its mother’s arms, for I felt again the thrills that I felt on looking in to my own babies’ faces.” Readers also get a sense of the closeness that these women felt towards each other. Not only did they visit each other and spend hours chatting about the gossip that was circulating in the small Mormon community of Laie, they cooked together, helped sew each other’s clothing, and delivered each other’s babies.
What I missed when reading Julina’s diary and the first time that I learned about Mormon midwives, however, was the ways in which midwifery was seen as a holy calling and was specifically blessed by the priesthood. In the nineteenth century, the Relief Society of each Mormon ward nominated two women to serve as wards. These women were often set apart for their callings. In 1883, The Woman’s Exponent reported that Willard Richards had felt in Nauvoo that “healing was a power” and that everyone who “officiated among the sick” should have “all the blessings that could be conferred upon them by those holding the keys of the priesthood of God upon the earth.” As a result, he had laid his hands upon the heads of a number of women and called them to act in that capacity. He referred to them as “handmaids of the Lord.” Richards’ blessing made the work of bearing children a religious one. It was one in which women were called to work as servants of the Lord. It was only one sanctioned by the Priesthood and recognized by it.
In some ways, the language that the Woman’s Exponent uses to describe birth is similar to that found in documentaries like Ricki Lake’s. Both see birth as a holy experience in which women have the opportunity to do something that is empowering and divine. What is different is their relationship to the medical profession. Lake sees herself as challenging a medical establishment that no longer (and perhaps never did) put the interests of women at the forefront of its mission. She sees herself as starting a movement to take back the process of giving birth and re-establishing it as something that women are in control of. There were tensions in nineteenth-century America about role that women and midwives would play in the business of giving birth. In many cases, doctors saw themselves as supplanting uneducated and ill-informed midwives. For the most part, the rise of the obstetrician was the decline of the midwife.
This wasn’t true in nineteenth-century Utah. Many of the women who became ward midwives had been trained in schools of midwifery in Scotland and Germany. Others took classes from doctors like Ellis Shipp and Romania Pratt. Although midwifery would eventually decline in Utah as well, Mormon women did not see obstetrics and midwifery as opposed rather they saw them as being part of the same divine knowledge.
As I near the end of my second trimester of pregnancy, I wish that this partnership were more evident in women’s health. Although the hospital at the University of Michigan tries to be accepting of alternative birth practices, I still feel torn between different visions of medical care. Watching Ricki Lake’s documentary or reading contemporary literature on why midwives are important, I felt as though women who didn’t choose to have an all-natural birth were being judged. Their births were somehow not as valiant or “real” as the births of women who chose to forgo pain medication. On the other hand, many doctors are skeptical of midwives and have chosen to ban doulas (women who are paid to be a woman’s advocate during labor in case she is in too much pain to make her own decisions) from their hospitals. As a result, as a pregnant woman, I feel torn about the choices I make during my pregnancies. At times, it seems as though I am screwed if I do and screwed if I don’t.