For two years, Natalie Jolly worked as a midwife’s assistant, caring for Amish women giving birth.
This was the Old Order Amish — horse and buggy, no electricity, no telephones other than the ones she and the midwife carried; no cars, other than the midwife’s car. And many miles from a hospital.
“There’d be a propane lamp hissing in the corner, farm animals outside and at first I thought I’d die from anxiety,” laughs Jolly. “That’s when I became aware of my own very different perspective on childbirth because these women were notable for a lack of anxiety about giving birth. They had little fear of pain.”
As a sociologist and assistant professor at the University of Washington, Tacoma, Jolly studies how social norms and culture influence what we often consider to be individual choices, especially when it comes to decisions around childbirth.
On Nov. 18, Jolly was the featured speaker at a Humanities Washington sponsored Edmonds Community College event, hosted by Edmonds SnoKing branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), an organization that seeks to advance equity for women and girls though advocacy, education, philanthropy and research.
Her topic fit the AAUW mission perfectly: “Should we call the midwife? How Culture Shapes Childbirth.”
With the Amish, Jolly found a stark contrast to contemporary American birth practices and experiences.
“These women were used to hard work. Labor and giving birth are viewed as tasks they will encounter and be successful at.”
Another difference between the Amish experience and mainstream society was attitude: “They saw it as a normal part of life. The woman would be in labor but still washing dishes, cooking, doing chores. Often times, the midwife and I waited on the porch until they called for us. I learned to knit on the porches.”
Jolly says the Amish women also have what she calls body confidence, believing they are strong and capable. “An important part of this is, it’s about what a woman’s body can do, not what it looks like.”
She thinks modern American women may lack that confidence. Working with the midwife at a non-Amish birth, Jolly watched as her mentor excused herself to take a brief bathroom break. The laboring woman said, “No! I can’t do this without you!”
A mother of four, Jolly has firsthand experience with the culture of childbirth, and wants our society to consider the consequences of escalating medical interventions. One in three births are Cesarean sections — 33 percent — despite a recommendation from the World Heath Organization of 10 percent. Indeed, C-sections in the U.S. have increased 700 percent since the 1970s, even as the infant and maternal mortality rate continues to track higher than many other developed nations.
To be clear, Jolly is not trying to add to the guilt, self-doubt and second-guessing women already endure when confronted with the many choices they face when having a baby. “I’m not intending to suggest that one method of delivery is better than another, but if we see problems with modern childbirth, we need to grapple with increasing medicalization and understand how social norms shape us — mind and body.”
Klarissa Sell, 28, attended the talk. As a nursing student who plans a career in labor and delivery, she appreciated the comparison of experiences between Amish and mainstream society.
“That was really interesting,” she says. “I had a child at a birth center and some friends said, ‘Oh my God, aren’t you afraid? You’re going to die without an epidural.’”
But she also found support. “When I said I had an unmedicated birth, they said, ‘Oh, cool.’”
Another attendee, Ariunaa Chuluunbaatar, 42, an Edmonds resident, recalls childbirth in her native Mongolia as communal. “In the hospital, women were giving birth and supporting each other.”
Culture does influence experience. Digging deeper into that topic, Jolly continues her research by talking with women soldiers and women in prison about childbirth.
“Again, I’m not at all saying everyone should have a home birth in rural Pennsylvania but let’s examine the fingerprints of our society on these apparently individual choices women make when it comes to childbirth.”
Contact Dr. Natalie Jolly at the University of Washington, Tacoma at [email protected] or 253-692-4680.
AAUW Edmonds SnoKing branch can be reached at [email protected].
— Story and photos by Connie McDougall