“Head, head, head, head, hands, head….” Mairi Breen Rothman, CNM, MSN, FACNM idly browsed a collection of fantastic abstracts for the next year’s Annual Meeting. As she did, she categorized each one as something conceived mainly for the head, hands, or heart (the classic idea of midwifery is that midwives work with all three), and she drew the corresponding image in the margins of her printout. Yet, when she had scanned more than 100 session descriptions, she had yet to draw the third shape. Where was the heart of midwifery? From this question, posed when Mairi was serving on the Program Committee some 18 years ago, grew one of the most beloved events of each year’s ACNM Annual Meeting & Exhibition. Heart of Midwifery is a gathering that brings together midwives and student midwives of every experience level and background for an evening of bonding, laughter, stories, song, and inspiration. It also features a blessing of the hands.
Heart of Midwifery evolved directly out of Mairi’s unique background. She grew up in a folk-singing family, received her BA in dance, and earned an MS in theater arts. For seven years, she was the music director of the Washington Ethical Society. There, she led various choirs and a youth dance company while becoming a midwife, and she leads a women’s choir to this day. (She is on a brief hiatus from the choir while completing her work in the inaugural class of Jefferson University’s Doctor of Midwifery program.) Mairi has also designed coming-of-age ceremonies and women’s retreats and had completed priestess training in an Earth-based spiritual tradition.
Each year, shortly after an Annual Meeting ends, she draws upon her knowledge and begins conceiving the next year’s session or sessions, collecting readings, researching activities, and gestating ideas. Some years include a spiral dance—an ancient dance form depicted on the walls of cave dwellings. Other years might find attendees—even despite themselves—creating and performing improvisational skits. Simple rules such as “incorporate three random objects in the room into the skit and end it with a phrase such as, ‘I hear breast milk is good for that’ or ‘don’t worry, she can handle it; she’s a midwife,’” provide structure. “It’s amazing what people can come up with when they are presented with a container for their creativity,” Mairi says.
Alike in Their Hearts
Within the variation, each year’s Heart of Midwifery event shares a similar pattern. Midwives come into the room, sometimes wearing their pajamas (Heart of Midwifery is held in the late evening), and sit in a circle on the floor, sometimes relaxing on pillows. Mairi begins with a moment of silence to help everyone center themselves. Then she opens the circle with a reading such as Marianne Williamson’s poem “Our Deepest Fear,” which begins, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” One or two storytellers recount a touching or amusing experience, and then established midwives and students are invited to share their tales. “We get to laugh and cry and empathize with each other and remind ourselves of our calling,” Mairi says. “We all practice in different contexts, but we are all working for the same things. This kind of circle time together gives us insight into each other’s lives and helps us see how alike we are in our hearts.”
There are songs as well, often sung hauntingly in rounds, and the blessing of the hands. To start the ritual each year, Mairi describes its origins. After a hand-washing ceremony with a round or chant providing the background, the midwives stand in two concentric circles with established midwives in the inner circle looking into the faces of the students in the outer circle. Then, each professional midwife takes the hands of a student in her palms and offers her own unique blessing, such as, “May a divine power enter these hands and guide you as you attend mothers and babies for the rest of your life.” “For someone whose intention is to do this work, who is ripe with the possibility of this work, it can be overwhelming to have an experienced midwife pass this blessing on,” Mairi says. “And, I always say a blessing doesn’t ‘take’ until it is returned. A lot of people are moved to tears by this exchange.”
The Fabric of Ritual
For Mairi, these rituals have a sacred power. “When you construct a ritual outside of your usual time and place, and you do it mindfully, there is a lot of power in this. And when we do it together, it has the power to bind us to one another.
“There is lot of rushing around at the Annual Meeting, trying to get our CEUs and attend important committee meetings. Heart of Midwifery is a time when we can take a breath, enjoy the company of other midwives, and remember that we’re not alone in our struggles; we are all in it together.”