Midwives have delivered babies for centuries, but in America they mostly went underground as childbirth became medicalized in the 20th century. So, like many other midwives these days, Misty Ward, owner and founder of Brookhaven Women’s Health and Natural Birthing Center outside Harrisonburg, is a bit of a rebel, part of a growing movement to de-medicalize childbirth. For the next installment of our Women of Interest series, WMRA’s Jessie Knadler has her profile.
[fade up sounds of post delivery]
What you’re hearing right now is the sound of child birth moments after delivery at Brookhaven Natural Birthing Center just outside Harrisonburg. The mom delivered her baby -- her third child -- in a water bath.
[sound of post delivery]
If the room sounds raucous, that’s because it is. Ten people – not including Brookhaven staff -- attended this birth: grandmas, big brothers, children. The parents call their two older children over to the bathtub to introduce them to the newest member of the family.
FATHER: Come see what it is.
MOTHER: Daddy is going to uncover it and you and Roman are going to say what it is [2:13]
CHILD: It’s a girl! It’s a girl! Yes!
A birth is by definition a lively event and Brookhaven founder and owner, midwife Misty Ward -- she caught this baby as it came out -- likes to retain as much of that rough and tumble joy as possible.
MISTY WARD: The birth center philosophy is it’s not a mini hospital. It’s a maxi house.
Births aren’t supposed to be clinical around here. Moms can invite their entire extended families into the birthing suites with them if they want to. They want to eat a ham sandwich? Go ahead. The fully stocked kitchen at the heart of Brookhaven is specifically for laboring moms and their families.
MISTY WARD: Moms are allowed to eat and drink during labor….so we have grandmas in here baking birthday cakes for the baby. We had a guy make steak for all of our staff, that was a really good one.
The idea behind midwife-led maternity care is that women do better when they’re able to deliver in a natural, home-like setting at their own pace, often in a water bath. And research seems to back this up. Doctors in the United Kingdom recommend that healthy women with low-risk pregnancies are actually better off staying out of the hospital. It results in lower rates of interventions, from caesareans to episiotomies. This is totally anathema in the United States where the vast majority of women have hospital births. Sixty percent have an epidural. Thirty-two percent are Cesarean deliveries, more than double the World Health Organization’s target of 10 to 15 percent. The whole experience is invasive and sped up, says Ward.
WARD: Women are created to do this and they can do it with the right support and I just feel like the hospital is failing them and not supporting them through a natural process. A lot of the things that happen to women in the hospital create the need for the epidural.
Ward is part of a growing minority who think women are better off going au natural. Around nine percent of all births in the U.S. are led by midwives, up from 3 percent in years past. When she first opened in 2010, she was delivering 40 babies a year. Now, she’s up to 100. More hospitals have linked up with midwives to meet the growing demand, but Brookhaven is still the only public freestanding natural birthing center in the area. She recently celebrated her 500th natural delivery.
WARD: Witnessing a baby come out of a woman. Honestly, the fact that it fit. The fact that she was alive when it was all over, honestly, it’s amazing that our bodies can create another human being. And even now, 500 births into it, and having gone through it myself, I’m still in awe of what women’s bodies can do. We make people.
Midwifery was the standard for delivering babies throughout history, and one of the few occupations open to women. But in the United States, the practice was pushed underground and demonized as unsafe and backward as the medicalization of childbirth took over. By 1950, almost all U.S. babies were delivered by doctors – male doctors -- in a hospital. Midwifery didn’t go anywhere. It was just illegal. So it tended to draw women like Ward who had a bit of a rebel spirit. It wasn’t until 2006 that midwifery in Virginia became legal again.
WARD: I kind of wanted to call the shots. And I didn’t want to be employed by someone else. I wanted to own my own business. I’m just really motivated in that way.
Because there were so few professional midwives in Virginia when she first started, she apprenticed for months at a time in places such as Senegal, the Dominican Republic, and Texas along the border. It required leaving her own children -- she now has three -- for long periods of time with her mother.
WARD: The nine weeks I was in Texas was really hard. I didn’t see them. But I wrote them a letter every single day.
Ward’s mother, long a home birth skeptic, became a champion of midwifery after witnessing Ward deliver her second child in her mom’s own bathtub.
WARD: She said, ‘Wow, Misty, what you just got, every woman deserves. I feel like I was robbed of that experience’ because her own births were traumatic, horrible and scary. She was terrified of me giving birth in her home but afterward she became my number one supporter.
But not everyone in the community was so enthusiastic. And home births are not recommended for high-risk pregnancies. When Ward went before the County Board of Supervisors in 2010 to apply for zoning permit to open her business, she was reminded again that the medical establishment still had issues with her profession.
WARD: Then the Board said, is there anyone here who opposes this. And all of a sudden I heard, ‘I do! I do! I do! I do!’
Four medical professionals associated with Rockingham Memorial Hospital got up to voice their objections. Ward, ever the fighter, reminded the Board that she was licensed by the Virginia Board of Medicine to practice anywhere in the state. If they didn’t give her the permit, she’d just open in another location.
WARD: They were like, Oh, good point. We can’t stop you from practicing.
They realized it was a turf war and gave her the permit. And after a few bumps, she says she now has a great working relationship with the hospital. Which leads to one of the biggest misconceptions about a natural birthing center.
WARD: We’re not going to handcuff you to the bed and say, you have to do this without drugs. Here, bite this stick. You know, if women want to have an epidural we’ll take them to the hospital, you know?
Ten percent of her laboring clients end up doing exactly that. And for the record, she’s not anti-epidural at all. She just thinks they’re overused.