In the book of Luke, we learn the birth story of Jesus. Though we are all so grateful for God coming to earth, the rendition is less idyllic than we often think about. The birth of our Lord is a heartbreaking account of a poor family that did not have access to the maternity care that they needed and deserved.
She gave birth to her firstborn son, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. After becoming a birth worker, and having children myself, aspects of this story came to life for me in ways that they had not before. I saw the inn's ‘no vacancy’ as more than an inconvenience, because I’ve known what that hour is like when a woman is ready to deliver. Then to learn that Mary laid her newborn in a feeding trough, after delivering him in a barn -- triggers both emotion and offense. No one should be born like this! A barn doesn’t come equipped with access to sanitary materials. They didn’t have childbirth education preparing them for this moment. Joseph wasn't trained to help his young wife in this frightening hour. But there they remained, just the two of them, facing the responsibility of a new baby -- one that God sent, Savior of the world, Yeshua.
In my work with women, both in the US as well as the developing world, I’ve learned that this kind of turbulent experience is not unique to Jesus’ family. Tragically, this happens every day. There are far too many women in the developing world that can tell similar stories. No doctor. No way to get to the hospital. Unreliable roads, no transportation. For some, the baby born in situations like this didn’t survive. The hospital wasn’t stocked with necessary tools to save a life.
In the Philippines as well as in Africa, it’s not uncommon to hear stories of physical and verbal abuse that women endure during childbirth, even if they are able to get to a medical facility. While women in these regions are slapped or yelled at, teen moms or immigrants and refugees in our own hospitals in the States get downward glares, refusals to translate into their language, or an overarching lack of compassion to show that we are not altogether “more advanced” than the rest of the world. Around the world, poor women are treated with the most hostility - they are often ignored when in need, and rushed to deliver - because they cannot pay.
While in the Philippines last month, our South East Asia Maternal Health Team hosted a dinner for midwives in the area. We asked them, “What is the skill that is most overlooked in maternity care in this area?” The overwhelming response was compassionate care for women during birth. When women are treated with kindness and patience during delivery, they more often report positive feelings about their birth and their baby.
Often, this kind of compassionate care begins with a commitment to educating women about the process of childbirth. Providing women with an understanding of how the process of childbirth will unfold is a powerful method of eradicating fear, and allowing women to enter into birth with confidence that their body is capable of the difficult feat that lies ahead (because, let’s face it, for women all around the world, birth is hard). Both here and abroad, our organization has placed an emphasis on the importance of childbirth education for new mothers. In Nashville, we consistently provide childbirth educators for teen mothers and the immigrant and refugee community that will be delivering in a hostile (often foreign) environment. Childbirth education has also been a focus in the other four regions in which we work, most recently with a seminar for pregnant women in the Philippines, which was attended by nearly 50 women.
But we don’t stop there. It starts with childbirth education. It’s followed up with doula support, midwives who are competent and compassionate, and postpartum care that doesn’t allow women to fall off of the radar. This all inclusive support for women is something we offer without discrimination based on economic status, race, or religion. We hold the story of our Savior’s birth near to our heart, knowing his own story heightens our awareness and responsibility for others born into the same inhospitable world.
The change that the world needs to see in the realm of childbirth has, at its heart, a commitment to providing every woman with compassionate prenatal, birth, and postpartum care, regardless of her economic status. There should ALWAYS be room for a woman to receive the care she needs when giving birth. We’re doing our best to make it happen, in every region where we work, to the best of our ability.