by Judy Gabriel Book review by Vere McCarty
Judy Gabriel, one of those sixties kids who marched to a different drummer, volunteered with the American Friends Service Committee and spent a summer in a Mexican pueblo. Her book is an in-depth look at the education and fulfillment that stemmed from that early experience.
It was only after raising her own children that Judy discovered her true calling as a doula – a supporter of women in pregnancy, childbirth and infant care. Here in the Willamette Valley her ability with Spanish naturally put her in contact with Mexican women, and eventually brought her back to Mexico. Taking her notebook and camera along, she went to the source—the midwives themselves.
Her book is dedicated, personally and specifically, to each of the women she visits and interviews. Next to their intriguing names are pictures of midwives whose pride in their work shines right through their material poverty.
In these dozens of intensely personal stories, the women talk about their pathways to becoming midwives, sometimes a calling, more often a response to the urgent need of a neighbor. They tell of assisting women through long hours of labor, with little payment, sometimes in the most challenging of circumstances.
A midwife named Delfina says, “Giving encouragement is the most important thing a midwife does. I recently had a patient who was only thirteen years old. I gave her a hot bath to make her sweat, I had her walk, and I encouraged her with loving words. That was all she needed.”
Feliciana recounts her dreams in which the Virgin gives her a baby boy and a baby girl, saying, “This is your don (your gift) to receive (deliver) babies. Don’t ever deny it.” She tells of walking seven kilometers to attend a woman in labor with a tiny foot poking out, and describes how she frees the newborn. Other midwives also describe their ways of “accommodating” the baby’s position in the uterus to make birth comfortable for mother and child.
Midwives suffer routine disrespect from the hospital establishment. Yet, learning from generations of experience, they often help women in ways that academically trained doctors cannot. There was a girl who fell and went into labor six weeks early. She did not want a cesarean section and a premature birth. Her midwife Nachita rocked her in a rebozo (shawl) and massaged her belly until the contractions stopped. Six weeks later she had a natural birth, Nachita assisting.
Judy communicates her feeling of gratitude to be invited so close to the source of life in these women’s homes. It is remarkable how each of these many brave stories adds something tangible to a picture of a tender world we know so little about.
Improvements in infant mortality have stalled in modernizing Mexico, even while hospital birth has become the norm and rates of cesarean births have risen to among the world’s highest. Accordingly, many people are working for renewed recognition of the benefits of midwifery, and for education of midwives in both traditional and scientific practices. “Touching Bellies, Touching Lives” is a valued contribution to this movement.
Judy Gabriel lives in Silverton with her husband Jim Gabriel. She has been a doula and childbirth educator for over twenty years. See www.mexicanmidwives.com.
Vere McCarty is the father of a daughter who was born at home in Keizer.