GAINESVILLE- The baby signaled her mom’s muscles to work, and they did. Inside the rented oversized bathtub that took up the middle of the living room, the young woman was birthing on all fours. There was no screaming, no counting, no frantic demands to “Push! Push! Push!” The thunderstorm coming from the CD player and the candlelight contrasted with the cloudless afternoon sky outside. When the head came out, the woman pulled her body up slightly. The dad was behind her to catch the baby under the water and then pushed it toward the new mother.
Megan Leigh Bainbridge had just experienced her first birth as a midwife-in-learning.
“It was the most peaceful, holy thing I have ever seen,” she said.
Bainbridge, 24, is a student at the Florida School of Traditional Midwifery in Gainesville. She realized that midwifery was her calling when she saw a guest speaker from Tampa’s Delphi Center in one of her classes at USF, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in women’s studies in 2000.
“I don’t like how women give birth in today’s society,” Bainbridge said.
She said she strongly opposes the way today’s mothers-to-be submit to doctors and their advice because of fear of the actual birth. The midwifery movement sees birthing as the most awe-inspiring act the female body can perform.
“Birth is when women have the most power, and giving birth naturally is a way for women to reclaim that power,” Bainbridge said.
Fellow student at the Midwifery School, Daniela Kornic, agrees.
“As a midwife, you get to honor birth in the way the woman wants to give birth,” she said. “You get to watch her power and allow her to exercise it.”
Kornic and Bainbridge have become close friends since meeting at the school.
“Megan tries to understand everything,” Kornic said. “She’s open to learn everything.”
Between classes, the students spend time and eat lunch together. However, sperm and infertility are not unusual topics of conversation.
“The students really get to know each other here,” Glenn Cameron, clinical administrator at FSTM, said. “We have a small intimate setting that promotes a certain closeness.”
Bainbridge, who grew up in Orange Park, remembers an early fascination with the female body and birth.
“My stuffed animals were always giving birth to other stuffed animals,” she said.
After graduation from Orange Park High School, she left for Tampa to attend USF. Initially registered as a nursing major, she soon found her passion for feminist issues and transferred into the Women’s Studies Department.
“It was amazing how eye-opening those classes were. Everybody should have to take some of them,” Bainbridge said.
When she first heard about midwifery, it all came together. To Bainbridge, midwifery is women helping other women, reclaiming their power and breaking away from the norm.
“This is where I belong,” she said.
Bainbridge’s life-long best friend, Jennifer Hirsch, is following in her footsteps and entering her first semester at FSTM this fall.
“This is my calling,” she said. “It’s what I’m meant to do. And I know Megan feels the same way.”
Cameron also describes midwifery as a calling.
“I get a few starry-eyed students at the beginning of a semester, but they quickly learn that this is not an easy program,” she said. “You have to really be into it. Megan is doing well academically, she studies well and she’s attentive in the classroom.”
Bainbridge was never a particularly enthusiastic student in high school or college and usually got by with minimal effort. By the time she graduated she had had enough of school. However, the program at Gainesville is demanding, and she has dedicated herself completely. Now in her fourth semester, classes have moved from twice to once weekly, and a day with a mentoring midwife is required. Megan spends hers with Diane Johnston of Jacksonville for her mentoring. Wednesdays are Bainbridge’s days with her mentor, Johnston. Together, they visit with pregnant women, do interviews and make belly casts.
“We make a plaster cast of a woman’s womb for her to keep. Some of them line them with fur for the babies to sleep in when they are still little,” Bainbridge said.
Johnston has been a practicing midwife for seven years and calls Bainbridge a natural.
“Megan is awesome,” she said. “She is sensitive and all my clients love her; she’s just got the gift.”
“Midwifery is so much more than people know,” Johnston said. “The mother gives birth, you know. Your job is to create the environment that she wants to give birth in. You have to assess information and bring it all together. You have to be an artist, and Megan is good at that. She never brings fear into the room. Birth is not a scary medical procedure; it’s a celebration of life.”
The curriculum at FSTM includes several science courses that are taken at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville. While she dislikes them, Bainbridge said she is determined to give every class her best effort.
“I even study during my breaks at work,” she said.
Bainbridge waits tables at a Ruby Tuesday in Orange Park to pay for her tuition. She has moved back into her mother’s house and commutes from there to Gainesville. The move back home shows her commitment to midwifery. Her tuition is about $500 per month, and rooming for free is the only way she can afford it.
“I suggested it,” said Martha Bainbridge, her mother. “She was nearly resigned to not being able to follow her dream because of money. I told her, ‘You can come live here and then you can do it.’ I love having her back here. It’s wonderful.”
The school currently charges $210 per credit hour, for a cost of about $18,000 for the three-year program. Financial aid is not yet available, but the school is working on meeting eligibility requirements and offers help to students in the form of work-study positions.
After graduation, Bainbridge said she wants to start her own home-birth practice, but not necessarily in Florida. But, having grown up here, she needs the warmth of the sun like an unborn needs the warmth of the womb.
“Every time I walk into the freezer at work, I tell myself that I’ll never live in the cold,” she said.
Leaving the state and working as a midwife, however, is not as easy as it sounds. Midwifery was illegal in 17 states in 2001, according to the Midwives Alliance of North America.
“There is a lot of work left to do,” Bainbridge said, referring to midwifery’s struggle to regain acceptance.
“We as a society have moved away from giving birth the natural way,” Cameron said. “There is certainly an overtone of patriarchal rule. The church began to oversee medical care, and midwives were often associated with witchcraft. In the United States, midwifery became considered substandard care and was phased out. Now we are making a slow comeback.”
Bainbridge said midwifery steps outside the medical boundaries and allows women to experience natural birth.
“Birth was without medical intervention for thousands of years,” Bainbridge said. “The hands-off methods of midwifery allow us to go back to the basics and be natural.”
Surely, Bainbridge will attend many more births in the future, but the memory of her first one will be with her forever.
“I knew what was going on,” she said. “I had been learning about it for a while, but I was still surprised. All of the sudden there was another person in the room.”
The baby girl, just like Bainbridge, had found her way.
Contact Alexander Zesch at email@example.com