In the romantic languages, the title for a person who accompanies a woman as she gives birth emphasizes the role of the laboring woman. For example, the word “midwife,” from the German, means “with woman.” Hebrew focuses its attention on the infant coming into the world: “Miyaledet” means “who delivers the yilod,” the infant baby. I suppose as an English-speaking Israeli, I identify with both titles. Both mother and baby need a kind, professional guide to help them to navigate the journey of birth with attention to both physical and emotional health.
As a midwife working in a busy Jerusalem hospital, I have had the privilege of escorting thousands of babies into this world. It is a demanding role, but I go to each shift knowing that I have the opportunity to bring compassion and kindness to a family going through a peak emotional moment in their lives. There are infinite nuances to the birth experience. Some babies slip into a calm, quiet, darkened room directly into a cooling embrace. Some fly out into bright, noisy spaces filled with what feels like dozens of arms waiting to receive them. Sometimes, a birth begins in an intimate cocoon but abruptly morphs into a public affair.
Healers, spiritual guides, nurses, midwives, and doctors attend births. Each discipline offers its own wisdom and follows its own agenda. I learn from and apply elements from several disciplines. Since I am a religious midwife, I am sometimes asked to help religious families navigate the halakhic voices as well as the multifaceted hashkafa — Jewish outlook — with regard to labor and childbirth. From the field of medicine, I can calculate how the fetus’s head is lying in relationship to its mother’s pelvis, and thus I can help it to navigate its path through the birth canal more easily if it is not doing so on its own. Alongside those skills, I’ve homed in on how to be sensitive to the emotional and psychological elements that may slow or even stop a birth process. Sometimes, a few words or the right touch can open a channel that suddenly brings a hesitant baby from its hidden womb into its mother’s arms. In myriad ways, my experience can quietly affirm parents’ decisions and help them stay calm and confident. As a midwife, I need to decide when to trust a woman’s body to give birth naturally and when to address the immediate crisis of a complication.
A nuanced tapestry blankets Israel’s multicultural society. A recent Ethiopian immigrant who had previously delivered her babies in a hut wished me to intuitively understand her need, during labor, for the men to be banished, for the lights to be turned off, for the bed to be lowered flat, and for me to stay silent and hands-off. More common are the Middle Eastern clans, (both Jewish and Arab) who invite every grandmother, cousin, and aunt to witness each contraction.
Some births happen so quickly that it seems the child couldn’t wait another moment to arrive. Other births stretch over hours and days. In the last stages of labor, when a woman has been pushing for what feels like an eternity, she and I may reflect on how this child must be waiting for just the right moment to enter the world. I might suggest that the child is savoring the last few morsels of Torah before descending, based on the talmudic wisdom that Jewish children learn the entire Torah in utero. One religious woman I attended asked her mother if her baby could possibly be learning Torah, since she was expecting a girl. The soon-to-be grandmother, a Jerusalemite elder, thought for a moment and answered: “I guess she is learning only what she needs to know.”
I feel so intensely the truth that countless miracles converge each time a baby is born. When a slippery new child arrives, I invariably say, “Welcome! Tell us what you just went through!” This is not scripted, but rather my spontaneous response to what I have just witnessed. A soul chose this family, these parents. A soul chose this mother to be the vessel that would carry it into this world. The world has changed. I hear the newborn telling us the story of an uncertain journey into an uncertain world. I feel blessed to have accompanied its arrival.
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Batya Kaplan is a midwife in Jerusalem, where she lives with her husband and baby. She fell in love with midwifery during her national service, and she has been delivering babies for the past seven years.