“You need to walk through the door completely prepared to drop the curtain,” says first-year midwifery student Audrey Waddell. “Knowing that you aren’t the only one, that you all are a part of the process, is key.”
Waddell is one of eleven first-year students at the Birthwise Midwifery School in Bridgton, Maine. The school operates in a converted residential house situated on a quintessential Maine hilltop surrounded by a white church, a seafood market with a creaking screen door and a wooded walking trail. The red brick, two-story building has sloping floors, paisley walls, white window frames and a front porch with wicker furniture where a tabby cat sleeps. It still fittingly evokes the cozy feeling of a home as a group of eager women engage in the first of three years of training to become a Certified Professional Midwife (CPM).
The students come from diverse backgrounds and arrive in the midwifery field for a variety of reasons. The element that unites them is a desire to serve and provide holistic care for women. Midwives understand birth as a natural process and see their roles as guides to expectant mothers. Dedication and a nurturing mentality bind these women together in what they call “a sisterhood.”
“I have the ability to see someone as a whole person and treat them as such, and not just a bunch of parts,” says Heather Marsh, a student from Western Massachusetts.
Mollie Whipple, a first-year student from Homer, Alaska, was the fourth-born child out of seven siblings in her family. She and all of her brothers and sisters were delivered in their parents’ home, so it was natural for her to consider midwifery as a career. “Some of my earliest memories are of me going to the midwifery office with my mom,” says Whipple.
The first-year midwives respect and trust their classmates enough to perform pelvic exams, catheterize, and deliver shots to one another. To learn directly from each other’s bodies, rather than plastic medical models, requires a great deal of trust and respect. The first time the students performed pelvic exams on each other, the reaction was, expectedly so, one of apprehension. “I was worried I was going to hurt my classmates,” Marsh says.
Brittany Roussel is a first-year student who lived and studied in a birthing center on the Hawaiian island of Kauai before moving to Maine. As the initial pelvic exam practice session loomed, a particularly anxious Birthwise classmate approached Roussel for counsel and reassurance, not because she was nervous about harming someone else, but because it was the first time she ever had a pelvic exam. “I felt more responsible for her well being than my learning experience,” says Roussel — a feeling that is constantly echoed by her classmates.
The ladies attend classes together three days a week, from nine a.m. through four p.m. They study in groups and take part in recreational activities, including yoga classes and sauna visits. They cook their meals side-by-side too. But the deep, cultivated friendships they have are strongly rooted in knowing each others’ bodies, which also creates a reverence for themselves. “You give yourself a new narrative,” Whipple says. “‘I am beautiful because I am not… fill in the blanks,’ changes to, ‘I love my body because it is incredible and it can do incredible things.’”
After two years of classroom study, clinical experience, and a full preceptor year shadowing a practicing midwife, the students will enter the world as CPMs. Some hope to bring holistic health care and options to women living in rural areas, while others hope to serve women internationally. A handful will pursue further education, earning a master’s degree in Midwifery, allowing them to work in hospitals.
“Everyone sort of peels open and we share ourselves,” Audrey Waddell says about the school and its unique, intense coursework. “It kind of is the best way to bond, without resistance.”
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Stephanie V. Strauss is a documentary photographer and multimedia storyteller living in Chicago, Illinois. She studied at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. You can learn more about her work at svstraussphotography.com and follow her on Twitter @svstrauss and Instagram @straussphotography.