I traveled to Washington, DC for the Women’s March on Washington in January 2017. I had no official plans of photographing the event and did not bring any fancy gear with me, just a cell phone and a point and shoot camera. I was so overtaken with the energy, the anger, the sheer quantity of human bodies, that halfway through I decided I better get busy trying to capture it. All photos were taken on the move, and all video footage is simple iphone clips. Technology is available and amazing, as was this monumental event.
There are many folks who think that being a pro-choice midwife is somehow an inconsistency. That to be so close to the brink of new life, and also in support of ending life potential, cannot exist in the same breath. The simple resolution is, they do coexist because many midwives are adamantly pro-choice. But I think the question deserves more than a simple response.
It is National Midwifery Week, and lots of people will be talking about babies and birth and mothers and breastfeeding to celebrate. I am in awe and support of all of those topics, and I’m quick to get choked up over the sight of a new family coming into the light. However, in the context of PlannedParenthoodGate2015, I would like to discuss a different chapter of women’s reproductive lives: actually NOT being mothers.
To start, midwife literally means “With Women.” It does not mean with babies. The specific path to midwifery that I have chosen, nurse-midwifery, allows me to care for women in many contexts outside of pregnancy and birth: well woman care, contraception, treatment of sexually transmitted infections, treatment of straightforward illnesses and medication management, and peri-menopausal/menopausal care.
Many years in a modern woman’s life are spent hosting a uterus of “potential space” — a spot that could hold a baby, but currently does not. Midwives can care for these women in addition to women who are gestating and birthing babies. The primary way that midwives assist women of childbearing age who do NOT wish to become pregnant is to give individualized contraceptive counseling and help the woman find a method that works for her and her lifestyle. There are many considerations that go into this process: health history, sexual habits, insurance and cost, side effect management, and perhaps most importantly, the woman’s overarching fertility goals. Does she want a baby someday? Someday soon? Ever? Or…Never?
Before continuing in this exploration, I would like to disclose personal information that helps me stay unbiased. I have never been pregnant, either intentionally or unintentionally. I come without personal ties to pregnancy or motherhood or abortion rights. I contemplate these issues as a blank slated woman who has borne witness to thousands of women’s reproductive lives.
As that witness, in the confidential setting of an exam room, I know that women’s reproductive lives are very complicated. I have certainly met the woman whose story is “boy meets girl, boy and girl plan life together, girl gets pregnant on the first try” tale, but I would say that a more crooked road to parenthood is the usual path. Some women have unintentionally become pregnant, more than once, and decided to parent those children. Some women were using birth control 100% accurately and got pregnant anyway. Some have had three or four miscarriages before giving birth to a baby they have waited years to meet. Some have blended families with multiple biological parents in the picture. Some had to spend $20,000 on infertility treatments to achieve their goal. And some women–many women–have ended their pregnancies intentionally.
When I hear criticism of Planned Parenthood, the voices are often men, and also women who have (or want) many babies. Negative Planned Parenthood sentiments predate the current fetal tissue discussion, which have certainly imploded in its wake. What I don’t hear is criticism about Planned Parenthood from women who have accessed their many services, or criticism from those of us actually taking care of women.
I understand that abortion is a very complex topic with tangled historical and religious roots, and I do not try and mute that fact. But our current state of polarized value systems is missing a critical realization. De-funding Planned Parenthood won’t end abortion, it will just make it harder to access earlier in pregnancy. Criminalizing abortion won’t end it either, just make it more unsafe and increase the number of maternal suicides in pregnancy. And, the most obvious layer: Planned Parenthood actually prevents abortion by providing affordable access to contraception.
I have been disappointed to find that the midwife voice is largely quiet in the public conversation supporting Planned Parenthood. From menarche (first period) through menopause is a lot of ground to cover on one woman’s sexuality map, and since that is our scope of practice, we are not just there for the baby making years.
Because I’m in women’s charts, because I’m talking to them, because I’m hearing their stories in a safe place, it is loud and clear to me that this chapter of women’s reproductive health is a part of the whole story. And it’s not just the young women and the poor women and the unmarried women or whatever the media has decided is the typical abortion consumer. It’s all women, of all ages and socioeconomic profiles, with all different portraits of motherhood that they have already experienced or hope to experience in the future.
I have caught several babies in midwifery school, and attended the labors and births of hundreds of women prior to entering midwifery as a doula and labor & delivery nurse. Creating a whole new person is a pretty fricking magical thing, and I am not here to demystify the process. I love listening to fetal heartbeats and seeing detailed ultrasound images and feeling babies kick back at me as I touch their mother’s bellies. But me being pro-choice doesn’t take away from that wonderment. It makes me and my many pro-choice midwife colleagues allies to women: come to us for what you need, when you need it. Want me to put in your IUD? Done. Want me to catch your baby? I’m there. Need me to listen while you grieve your miscarriage? I’m with you. Need abortion resources? I will find them.
There are so many elements of this current debate that cannot possibly be tackled in a short essay. The ethics of choice, the financial funding of women’s health services including abortion, the power of distorted media, and human tissue transport for research could (and likely will) be discussions that are book’s length long. But for those who are willing to try and understand, not just shut down the debate, the following resources have helped shape my thoughts:
The week that the current fetal tissue transport debate hit the press, I was standing with a colleague and the miscarried (medical term, “aborted”) tissue of a 14 week fetus. This was not at an abortion clinic, this was in the context of caring for women in all different situations of pregnancy as we find ourselves doing in hospitalized midwifery care. She and I had to discuss what happened next to this tissue, both out of respect to the little being and per institutional protocol. It was so viscerally ironic to me that my first encounter with this expulsed gestational age happened literally the same timeframe that scandal erupted across the nation. It made me realize, those who are screaming against it aren’t in it like me. It’s not just a poster and a prayer on the street, it’s my actual job to deal with it and not just talk about it.
Part of the reason I have never encountered abortion personally is that Planned Parenthood was there for me as a young college student to fill my first Rx for birth control pills. After that, a forward thinking physician well before her time advocated for me to have an IUD, which years later is becoming the standard of care for effectiveness and patient satisfaction. I am glad that my own path towards motherhood was able to be delayed for these years I have been learning to help other women become mothers. And, along the way, learning to clinically support all the experiences that women have shared with me: sex and loss and infections and heartbreak, and abortion too.
You don’t have to like abortion or think it’s a good option, and you most certainly don’t have to have one. I am not here to try and pry you over to the pro-choice side of the fence. But I have to ask: do you really think de-funding Planned Parenthood will solve anything? Are YOU going to fill the health care gap if you shut down Planned Parenthood?
Regardless of your political stance, I guarantee you know someone who has experienced abortion personally, whether or not she’s disclosed it. Most likely, she doesn’t regret it. You just don’t know about it because she doesn’t feel safe telling you. Especially if you are loudly anti-choice.
With women, for a lifetime. – Emily Rumsey, SNM, RN
I got into birth for the pure, vibrant life force of it. I wanted to see new babes come out screaming, flailing their limbs as they learned to translate their dark and warm existence in the womb into this crazy planet we are all sharing together. I got into birth to hear little squeaky cries and witness tears of parental joy. I got into birth to take care of healthy women, and help them experience the normal physiological and sexual process of getting a baby out and into the world.
I did not get into birth to witness death — I thought I would leave that to nurses who chose the fields of oncology, gerontology, and trauma, amongst other specialties that are used to helping people die.
My sweet, wonderful grandmother died a month ago, and since she left us I have been thinking a lot about how much time we’re granted. It’s tapped into some pretty deep, extensional stuff, actually. I literally fled a birth at the hospital to be with her when she took her last breath, and I would put that experience amongst the most incredible births that I’ve ever witnessed. Watching people pass in and out of the universe is about as close to the edge as one can get.
I had seen many births before becoming a nurse, all of them with the outcome of a healthy mom and a healthy baby. Some of those women did not want the epidural they ended up getting, or did not want the c-section that brought their baby into the world, or perhaps did not want to birth in a hospital when they had other visions for their birthplace. But all of those mamas ended up with babes in arms.
In my first year as a labor nurse, I have attended the births of four babies who were never going to take that first, vigorous cry. In those little bodies were the makings for a thriving human being: all the organs that need to elegantly pump and expand and contract to make life work. But for unknown, completely happenstance reasons, none of them were earmarked for breathing and moving once on the outside.
In medicine, we call this an “IUFD,” Intrauterine Fetal Demise. The cause of death is often unknown, and the mother has to go through the birth process knowing that her baby is dead. At the nursing station, we have a chalkboard of sorts that keeps the staff updated on the process of each labor: Room 1 is about to deliver, Room 2 is about to start Pitocin, Room 3 baby boy was born at 4:42pm, etc. When you see the dreaded “IUFD” on the chalkboard, your heart sinks in reverence for that family. There will be no sweet baby cries coming out of that room.
My first IUFD was of a baby that was technically viable, in the late 20’s weeks of gestation. The mother hadn’t felt the baby move, and we told her to come in to triage for assessment. Women who don’t feel their babies move worry, and they call us all the time, and we always tell them to come in for evaluation, and it’s usually fine. And sometimes, it’s not fine. You look for a heartbeat with the cardio monitor, you look with a doppler, you hope the equipment is broken. In this case, the heartbeat just wasn’t there.
During her labor, I heard noises that I’ve never heard before. The noises of labor pain are so familiar to me: grunting, yelling, swearing, screaming. But it’s always followed with laughter and joy and kisses on a warm, slippery new baby. The noise of a woman experiencing physiologic birth with the known outcome of a dead baby is a sickening song. It’s pain of the uterus and the cervix and the vagina met with the deep, unthinkable pain of grief taking over the heart, the lungs, the mind, the soul.
As that baby slipped out, I looked into the eyes of one of my favorite staff doctors who attended the birth. We both felt so much sadness, we had to look away from each other.
The second time I witnessed this bizarre and other worldly type of birth was of twins who were a few days away from viability. The mom’s water had broken, and despite every medication and trick we could administer, her cervix continued to dilate. Her babies were going to come too early, and there was no stopping them. As the first twin was born, I handed the baby to her father, who held her as his wife gave birth to the second. The baby’s chest rose and fell as she tried to breathe on her own, but she never made a sound.
I split my attention between helping the mother with the second delivery and listening to the declining heartbeat of the first twin. It’s a weird thing, to hear a heartbeat just fall out of a person one beat at a time. The mother was very stoic until the second twin was delivered, at which time I heard that same terrible song of grief that is so unique to this type of experience. As soon as the second twin, a boy, came out, the mother’s wailing overtook her. He, of course, did not make a peep.
The first twin died first. The father of the babies held the second twin, who also attempted to take some breaths and had a diminishing heartbeat, and looked up at me and said, “there’s got to be some little baby somewhere in the world who made it this small, isn’t there? Isn’t there anything you can do?” I was the only staff in the room at this time, and the power of that question left me speechless. I had to force the words out of myself. “I’m so sorry, there is nothing we can do.”
The most recent birth loss that I attended was my first shift back after my grandmother’s funeral. I came to work hoping for a light assignment to hop back into the swing of things: a first time mom who thought she was in labor but wasn’t, or perhaps some dehydrated patient who just needed IV fluids. Instead, I got a full term IUFD. That is the worst possible kind. It’s a baby, with all 10 fingers and 10 toes, who weighs 7+ lbs. It’s not teetering on viability, it doesn’t have see-through skin, it’s a full blown person.
This mother spoke only Somali, and her partner spoke some English. The room was an inflow of complete cacophony all day long. Between the midwives, doctors, interpreters, and phlebotomists who came to care for her, combined with the constant stream of family members, the noise level was almost akin to a public space. In my experience, Somali women have an incredible network of communal support in birth. There is always plenty of food, plenty of hot tea, and plenty of loud words of what I assume are support, but I can’t be sure since I don’t speak Somali.
This birth was no different: there was plenty of food, plenty of hot tea, and plenty of loud words.
As the baby came out, I felt the choking absence of a stethoscope around my neck. Usually when I see a head coming, I look down at my watch to mark the time, grab the bell of my stethoscope to make sure it is ready for listening, and peek back at the baby warmer to make sure blankets are stocked and warming. When there will be no baby’s heartbeat, you don’t need a stethoscope. I had already taken the warmer out of the room. It seemed like dangling the prize in front of someone who could not win.
As soon as the baby slipped out of her body, the five Somali women in the room who had been chattering and arguing all day knelt down and wept. They cried for Allah, they cried for that baby, they cried for their mama friend.
The midwife tried to offer the baby to its parents, but they were not ready to see him. I had to go find a crib, since I had intentionally taken it out of the room. The midwife put him in the crib and I swaddled him in our hospital blankets. The five Somali women leaned around the crib and laid hands on him. If I did not know the situation, it would have looked like just another day, just another birth with another batch of visitors.
He stayed in the room for about 15 minutes, and after the placenta was delivered the mother wanted to see him. We wheeled the crib up to the edge of the bed and she peered into it, but couldn’t hold him. She looked at her husband, who said to me in broken English, “you take him now, we are done.”
I started to take the baby away, and two of the older Somali women walked up towards me. The husband said, “two moms say thank you.” The mother and mother-in-law bowed down to me. I thought I might either burst or melt with gratitude and grief – I wasn’t sure which would happen.
A few hours later, as I un-swaddled that babe, I gave him his first and only bath. His limbs felt like the limbs of every other baby I have ever bathed, but they didn’t move. His footprints, with inked toes on paper, looked the same as every other footprint I have made. But he didn’t try to squirm away as I did them. As I stood in the back of our unit, hidden from healthy moms and healthy babies, giving this dead baby a bath at 3am, I thought, man, this is some heavy shit I’ve walked into.
There have been times that I’ve felt guilt for choosing labor & delivery as a specialty, because I’ve chosen literally the ONE element of medicine that is usually about health and joy over sickness and pain. Especially because the medical work of my parents has been so profound in our community, and their populations are so sick and layered, I have worried that I took the cheater’s way out and went to nursing school just to hang out with the healthy patients experiencing a normal life transition.
Since starting at HCMC, where the patient population is often quite challenged in both their social and physical bodies, I have started to let go of some of that guilt. I think I finally laid it to rest a few weeks ago, giving that sweet little dead Somali babe a bath in the middle of the night. It’s not an easy task, and not one I signed up to do. But I honor and respect it more each time it has happened.
I have never felt more like a nurse than in caring for these three families. The usual tasks of charting and fetal monitoring just get tossed out the window. The job becomes one of witness & support. It actually reminds me of my work as a doula — being with women and their families as they experience a major transition, without focus on the medical aspects of the process.
My grandma had 90 years on this earth, and even though I miss her, I know that she had a good run. I have no explanation for why these four little babes never got their chance. I do feel like I’m learning that it’s unfortunately a part of the process. While it’s rare, sometimes you leave the hospital without a babe in arms.
This weekend I attended the birth of an amazingly strong mother of two young boys, who pushed her third boy out without any medications or interventions. He came out yelling, and she and I spoke softly to each other in French, her native language.
The midwife who caught that baby was the same midwife who caught the sweet little Somali baby who didn’t make it. The midwife and I have not had a birth together since the IUFD, and this, the first one together after that experience, could not have been more picture perfect.
Full circle. Bring it on.
I start midwifery school this fall at Georgetown University, a dream that goes back to when I was a little girl. I used to play “birth” with my sisters by stuffing a soccer ball in their shirts and making them push out a Cabbage Patch baby doll. Writing my application essay was digging deep: what-do-you-really-want-to-do-with-your-life-and-why deep. After what seemed like a very directed journaling exercise, I have never felt more sound about this path, this calling, this wacky set of lifestyle choices I’m going to continue living. Because in the process of trying to convince Georgetown that they should want me, that I would make a good student for their fancy program, I realized why I’m going to be a good midwife. It isn’t just because I like watching babies be born — that’s the easy part. It’s because I’m trying to straddle the middle ground, finding the sweet spot of balance in a field that is exercising increased polarity of care management options by the minute.
Childbirth is a hot topic these days. Or kind of a “hot mess” topic, take your pick. The number of programs, philosophies, classes, clubs, and blog subscriptions a pregnant woman can belong to could be a full time job if she chose to delve into all avenues. We’ve forgotten how to keep it simple, so we’ve made it *really* complicated by offering 178 different branded outlooks on how to keep pregnancy & birth simple. Paradoxical? Yes.
To my core I believe in birth as a natural process. I know how to be with women in labor, and I attribute this to a combination of my own experiences as a doula, alongside all that I’ve gleaned from watching other doulas, midwives, nurses, doctors, aunts, grandmas, and birth partners at the bedside. Toss some yoga in there too, for good measure.
My philosophical base before I started working as a nurse was trust & awe of the body, mixed with a great distrust of the medical system of care. Now, with some Labor & Delivery RN experience to my name, the trust & awe part is still there, but is now blended with a greater understanding of how and why care providers make certain choices and recommendations.
In my Georgetown essay, I sort of uncovered my metamorphosis a bit, in a way that I’m almost embarrassed to admit but I think is important to share. Before working at Hennepin, I saw almost exclusively “normal” births of upper-middle class women with enough resources to hire private birth support. Those initial scenes included non-medicated labors, waterbirths, precipitous multiparous deliveries, and uncomplicated home births. Fewer than 10% ended in the operating room as cesareans, only a few included a mother or father of color, and only one a single mother. So my “birth” into birth world was as a natural-food-eating practitioner of yoga who wanted to help women achieve vaginal births without an epidural.
Since then, I have witnessed a new array of scenes: shoulder dystocia, postpartum hemorrhage, uterine rupture, pre-eclamptic seizures, and placenta accreta … and that is just the clinical lineup! The socioeconomic variance from where I started now includes maternal substance abuse, mental retardation, homelessness, incarceration, and prostitution, often nested into a state of extreme poverty. My job experience routinely reminds me that not every baby is planned or wanted, and not every baby has parents who are spiritually and financially ready to parent.
I still fiercely protect the concept of normal, physiologic birth and honor a woman’s right to participate in her care. If a waterbirth patient rolls up to triage, I will jump at the chance of being the nurse in that room. If a woman’s water bag broke 37 hours ago and she is refusing medication against medical advice, go ahead and assign me to her. If a family wants to use a certain type of scent, music, or mood in the birth room, I dig it — hand me the lavender oil and the iPod mix. And with everything in myself, I still intend on having completely un-medicated births for my own babies.
Recently I was privileged to be the nurse for one of the simplest, sweetest, most uncomplicated births I’ve ever seen, and a major bonus for me: with one of my greatest midwife mentors. It profoundly reminded me that normal birth can happen in the hospital, and that you aren’t automatically stuck with needles and drugs and impatience just by virtue of walking through the institutional doors.
The unplanned part of the journey is that I like high-risk birth too. I feel as comfortable standing in the operating room as I do sitting next to the waterbirth tub, and believe-you-me, I did not see that coming. But here’s the part that’s cool: the statement is reversible. I can still do normal. I still believe in normal. I still want normal. I just know how to change costumes if the scene takes an unexpected turn. I feel like I’m participating in a new generation of nurses who read and cherish Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, and know how to keep a sterile field sterile at the same time. Sara B and Caroline, thank you for showing me the way to duality. And Missy, thank you for taking new nurses under your wing (even the super hippie ones) and being such a kind and thorough high risk teacher. The gratitude list is endless; I feel quite blessed to be amongst such a large network of incredible mentors.
One of my closest and oldest friends, who has been a joyful role model of parenting to watch over the last five years, has chosen home births with all of her children. I once sheepishly asked her, in so many words, if she thought I was “selling out” for working in the hospital and planning a career within the medical system.
Without hesitation, she said, “nah, I think the people there probably need you even more.” I had a similar conversation with Ina May Gaskin whilst driving her around Minneapolis during a conference that the U of M hosted. I figured, no better time than the present to ask your guru for a little endorsement of your life’s plan, right? She said, “Emily, we need more midwives in the United States. I don’t really think it matters where they work.”
Those two smart ladies might be onto something. There are lots of great homebirth midwives already practicing, already offering home birth as an option. I’m trying to bring some normal into the hospital. It doesn’t need to be a counterculture clash — when you’ve got people who are clinically sound but spiritually protective of birth as a transformational experience, you’re finding midwifery in the hospital just as righteously as you are at the farm.
My parents are professional do-gooders. They are community workers with hearts of gold and stars in their eyes for only each other. My mom’s voice is loud; she commands a room with her words and her stance. My dad’s voice is quiet; the room reveres his presence as equally as he reveres theirs. We sprung from their genes, their teachings, their philosophies, and their hopes for us to be independent thinkers who would learn to engage in our communities.
My Auntie Anne, one of the strongest female influences in my life since before I can remember, once babysat for us over an entire weekend and taught us to say “Women, Unite! Take back the night!” as we forged on in an anti-violence and anti-pornography parade through the house. I was, give or take, about eight years old. My littlest sister would have been, give or take, about three in this scenario. We embraced her loud voice and the presence of her lesbian partners in our lives from our youngest days.
The first political demonstration I remember was a camp-in with my dad alongside a park full of homeless folks. I was not older than ten years old. The first conversation I had with my mom about her path to nursing began with her goal to find a career that would allow her the flexibility to travel and explore the world as widely as she desired for as long as she wanted to do so.
With these people as my base, how was I going to turn out any other way than…me?
I was recently accused by a male colleague of being “pretty much against everything” because I questioned status quo, because I raised distaste for something I didn’t like. Because I used my voice. To that I say, how can you be FOR something if you aren’t against that “something’s” opponent?
After some stewing, some self-defense, and some frustration, I cycle back to exactly where I started: a well-educated product of two do-gooders who refuses to accept status quo for the sheer sake of accepting. I truly believe that we should be for something — “for” lots of things. But to be “for” a certain political stance or outlook, you often have to question, reject, and criticize the frameworks that challenge your “something.”
I am “for” breastfeeding. This means I am against the blanket dispersal of formula, without attempting breastfeeding first and giving women unlimited lactation support resources. I am “for” the prevention of diabetes, which means I am against high-fructose corn syrup. I am “for” about 20 other things, which means I am against many things too. But not just because I want to argue. Because I want to really fight for the stuff I believe in.
When men have loud opinions, they are rarely shushed or backed into a virtual corner. When women have loud opinions, they are often deemed as man hating feminists. How have we gotten to 2013 and still, sexual and gender equality are at such a distance? Can I not be a man-loving feminist, with a voice as loud as is allowable for men? Because for those who really know me, that is who I am.
What you see is what you get. I am “for” more than I am against. I don’t believe that the world is only changed by the loud voices. But I wasn’t given a quiet voice, so why is that the one I would use?
One of my favorite midwives recently said about me, “your intentions are broadcast from your eyes like a clear bell.”
One of my favorite little kids recently said, about herself, “when I say what I say, I mean what I mean.” Her mama, by the way, a loud and proud lady.
Be “for” something. Whatever your something is.
We all wear the scars of time on our bodies: sun damage, stretch marks, crow’s feet, grey hair. Changes of body at the cellular level usually happen gradually. But sometimes the deepest and most visible scars are the ones that happen unexpectedly: a grease splash on the arm while cooking, a gash wound that never fully re-approximates, a mastectomy that was planned only a week ago.
Most people don’t choose to burn their arm while cooking and wouldn’t sign up for elective removal of a body part. Because most of us can’t choose our scars: what they look like, or how we got them.
I never planned on getting a tattoo. Probably for the same reasons many non-tattooed bodies choose no tattoos — I wanted to look “professional,” didn’t have a design in mind, didn’t want to be the lady in the nursing home with a saggy tattoo when I turned 80 years old. But when I was cut with the deepest emotional scar I could have imagined, the first place I turned to heal was to get a tattoo. I figured I would wear this emotional scar in my heart for the rest of my life — might as well wear it on my body too. I got my first (supposedly last) ink with a friend living out a similar unforeseen fork in the road. We re-marked the pain of our internal wounds with a deliberate, physical scar. It was downright therapeutic.
My second tattoo comes without drama initially, but has branched through time into a family tradition. My sister went to Tommy to design two “R’s” for her foot, representing our two family names. In the design process, Tommy drew an image that he thought was better suited for me than Glynis. She still got two R’s that night, just a different variation. I got the R’s designated for me later that week, and since then, multiple members of our family have each gotten a unique variation of the same concept. The double letter family tree tattoos are taking root one foot at a time.
The third, like the first, came from a place of great stress and despair, and marks the victorious end of a long professional battle. It fossilizes a concept and an idea that I had to fight hard for, with the assistance of more than one lawyer.
The newest comes from a place of pure joy and pride, marking the fruition of my goal to become a nurse. An amalgamation of anatomy, birth, and yoga, I wanted to appreciate my call to midwifery, my own good health, and my yoga practice alongside my love of nature. I asked him to fuse cardiovascular branches with tree branches, and somehow incorporate a grateful woman in the mix. Talk about a tall design order, but once again, Tommy came through. As my favorite five year old said, “it’s like a tree with a person tangled up inside.”
It is the biggest tattoo I have, but it hurt the least. Partially because I think in the last 5 years since getting the first one, I’ve accepted that these emotional and physical scars are unavoidable. There is no way over it except through it. Just breathe. That’s what I tell women in labor, and it’s what I told myself when the needle hit skin.
These are the only four scars I have ever chosen for myself, and I love every single one of them.
Some people hang art on their walls. Some people look at it in museums. I take Tommy’s art with me everywhere I go.
People often ask me why and how I continue to build career goals in both media and health care. I think some of it comes out of genuine curiosity about the logistics of maintaining two time intensive jobs, and there is certainly an element of (legitimate) concern for my balance of work & playtime. But I think some of it stems from not understanding the fusion, the intermediary, the common ground that exists between photos, movies, babies, and health.
While the naysayers may never get it, this has been one of the most incredible years of my life in terms of my career. Sort of like the birth of twins, two entities arrived at the same time, just in different rooms. I work at the hospital where my parents met — the very building that housed the beginning of their life together as a family — which in its own right is one of the best places possible to have a baby in the Twin Cities. I moved my tiny little photo side-business from my parents’ house into an actual office, with an actual logo on the door and photo canvases on the walls.
When I decided to become a nurse, I knew that I wanted labor & delivery from day one, but I didn’t think I’d get such a coveted job without years of experience. When I spent hot summer days editing photos in the non-commercial setting of an attic, I dreamed of a day when I could invite a client over without having to inconvenience my family, without looking quasi-professional nested within a domestic residence. But since my trajectory had been reset to nursing, it seemed highly unlikely that this day would ever come.
As the two dreams continued to be parallel roads, graduating from school and building a photo client base, at some point they made a little sweet love and merged into one gnarled and twisty road of blended people, places, and topics. I got the first labor & delivery job I applied for and the studio space fell into my lap over one casual cell phone call. I’m not totally sure how any of that happened, but I’m not asking questions.
In the past year I have photographed families after being their labor nurse, offered photography advice to dads struggling with brand new cameras in the birth room, and offered on-the-fly lactation advice to photo clients who were having breastfeeding issues. I produced a film about birth doulas, the exact film I’ve wanted to make for five years, and then was able to put RN next to my name in the director’s credit.
The most joyous element of all this interweaving is my co-workers, both at the hospital and at Enlightened Mama, the childbirth education & resource center that puts a roof over my Emily Rumsey Photography creative space. These nurses and midwives have taught me clinical skills and kept my chin up on days when I felt like a kindergartner holding a Fisher Price stethoscope. These childbirth educators (and their rad husbands) have celebrated and promoted my work in everything that they do — lamaze class students can’t escape without a little free PR from Enlightened Mama. The two jobs aren’t obviously related on a resume, I realize. But the blending between feels seamless some days, like today when I just overheard an Enlightened Mama client gushing about her birth experience at HCMC in the next room. My ears couldn’t help but pick up the unsolicited review and produce a little smile as I typed.
In high school, I had an English teacher who permanently changed my view on writing, on reading, on ways to document one’s vision of the world. I cannot remember if it was in his class that I first read “The Road Not Taken,” but I know it was somewhere on his syllabus. He encouraged, almost demanded, that we find a new way to state or analyze something — to never make the statement already stated.
The poem has always resonated with me, and I always wanted to be the kind of person who chose the road less travelled by. I’m starting to feel that by NOT making a choice, by sticking with both media and health care…that has made all the difference.
Emily Rumsey Photography documents families. Those families come in all types of packages — short moms, tall dads, hot hippies, conservative businessmen, various ethnicities and religious backgrounds, blended marriages, adopted kiddos, families with lots of money, and families who have very little money. The variety of looks keeps my camera fired up and my shutterbug finger creative.
One of my favorite shoots this past year was of these amazing mamas, whose affection for each other lit up the room as I captured their first official family portrait together. They are the picture of love and devotion to family.
As your family photographer, I don’t care if you are married or not married. I don’t care if you have the same last name or if every person in your family has a different last name. I just care that you love your kid(s), that you are thoughtful towards those around you, and that you are trying to find happiness in your life.
One of the joyous parts of my photography work is getting the chance to document lifestyles and causes that fire and inspire me personally. As of late I have indulged in photographing gardens, artisan crafts, local vineyards, and of course, powerful births.
As an urban cyclist and resident of the midtown neighborhood in Minneapolis, I spend a lot of time on the Greenway getting to, from, and back again towards a multitude of destinations. My books, my dog, and my homemade meals have all been lugged along for the ride many times. It is my favorite highway.
This family is committed to biking in a way I admire and aspire to emulate. They bring themselves all over town by peddlin’ alone, 365 days / year, no matter the weather or even state of body (mama biked 9 months pregnant!)
Five years ago today, I experienced a very unexpected and traumatic loss — the kind of life event that takes you away from the innocence and naiveté of youth and forces you to realize that you’re a grown-up now. I knew at the time that I would never be the same person again. Indeed, I am not that same person, and I’ll never see the world through the lens of that person again. However, loss and change are not always bad. In my case, it worked out on the up and up.
I was raised inside a framed picture of Midwestern, wholesome stability. I made it to 27 without anything really bad ever happening to me. The heartaches and disappointments I felt were well within the confines of normal growing pains, the boundaries of trust and disbelief were never really challenged.
We all know that there is a certain architecture of life’s difficulties that are unavoidable: childhood pets can’t live forever and all grandparents will eventually die. Rent costs money and mortgages are a big responsibility. Break-ups suck, and you won’t get every job, award, or publication you try to land.
These experiences, while difficult, are known outcomes of living. When the person who was supposed to travel with me through these predictable challenges evaporated, I was left to face an unfathomable scenario in my own traffic lane. I had no input or control; not even having a vote in the matter was a change from the way I do things.
I remember telling my mom, in my most acute period of crisis, that I wanted to crawl back into her womb and hide. Starting over, becoming a baby again and going as far back in time as possible was the only way I could see offloading the grief. Unfortunately, her womb was closed for business at that point.
So, instead of reverting to infancy, I crawled under a blanket for about three days. When I emerged, on the third day, I made a list of three things I planned to do next: get a tattoo, grow my hair out, and become a midwife. In no particular order.
Obviously, the tattoo was the easiest to cross off the list. I was unable to find a metaphor that says “metamorphosis” better than a butterfly, so I made peace with its trite nature and proceeded proudly. About two weeks later, I enrolled in the first round of many prerequisites that I’d need to convert my liberal arts background into a science degree. And by that summer, I could make a ponytail out of the growing hair. A braid in another six months.
Now, three tattoos and many long hairs later, I’m halfway to midwife, which means I’ve almost killed the whole, arbitrary wishlist! I had to leave behind the life that I had chosen for myself, under an unthinkable set of circumstances. But in the five years since, I have gotten a masters degree, landed my dream job, opened a photography studio, entered into a cooperative business with good friends, produced a long documentary and several short ones, met the premier birth guru, run a half marathon, learned to stand on my head, and fallen in love more than once.
I’m not sure if it’s all those years of Catholic school or many years of literary analysis coursework, but I cannot see past the symbolism of how birth and resurrection have played out in my journey. I found my way to birth through a death — the end of life as I knew it reincarnated into the life of a person who welcomes new babies into the world every day. If not for that ending, this beginning would not be.
It is these babies, these families, these photos and movies and yoga postures, that kept me moving forward until there was no looking back. While I would not wish the ugly parts of my story on anyone, I am lucky to have gotten my butterfly moment. Not everyone gets a chance to start over. I saw my chance and grabbed it. The voices that called me to both midwifery and media were loud, and I listened.
The first birth I ever attended was magical. It called me into a world and a realm that felt like home, even though I had never been there before. It was the birth of my cousin’s second child, and for who-knows-what-reason she invited me to be with her for this life altering event. I was enraptured by the process, the physiology, the motions and emotions of getting a baby out. When he was born, I remember being awestruck by the realization, “all of a sudden there’s another person in this room!”
Since his birth I have attended many births. Some as a photographer, some as a doula, and most as a labor & delivery nurse. I never thought this could happen, and I never wanted it to happen, but it has happened: birth is routine to me. It’s everyday. It’s ordinary. It’s my job.
It is still a process that is magical, and still a concept that is philosophically mind-blowing to me, that you can make a person and get it out into the world. The Sarah McLachlan song “Ordinary Miracle” pretty much sums it up. It’s a “miracle,” as trite and cliche as that word is, but it’s something I do many times a week. It’s my bread & butter. I see it all the time. Sometimes three times in one day.
Then, just when it all feels comfy and run-of-the-mill, there is a birth that reminds you of the magic, the power, the reason that I’m staying up in the middle of the night and missing holidays with my family.
I knew Kelsey & Nate before they were married. I knew them before they were pregnant. They are dear friends of mine who go back to a time in our social lives when babies were just a plan, someday, out there, in the future. I knew them before they were parents.
Early into their journey towards expanding their family, they called me in for resources, ideas, input. It was a delight to put my RN hat on when we would have dinner together, blending the boundaries between my professional and personal life.
I knew baby Camille before she was even cooked up, when she was just a twinkle. During a big potluck party one night, I gave the whole “no pressure, you don’t have to have me be at your birth, but if you want me to, I will, but no pressure, I’d understand if you don’t want me there…no pressure.” Kelsey cocked her head at me and frowned with a furrowed brow, “well of COURSE we want you there that’s not even in question! Have we not officially told you that yet?”
From then on, we developed goals and plans for the birth as every doula & expectant mother does. They read the books, we practiced the comfort measures. Again, this was a role I know how to play – prenatal doula visits are old hat, just another day at work.
Camille was born underneath the most perfect birth cloud imaginable. Kelsey wouldn’t stop working until she was born. And I have never seen a father or partner more in love with their birthing wife than Nate; he looked at her with puppy love eyes of a teenager into the wee hours of the morning as she pushed that baby out. And her midwives, both friends and colleagues of mine, allowed birth to play its natural course, without intervening. I was their doula, I suppose, and partially their birth photographer. But mostly I was their friend, Camille’s Auntie Em, and an observer who felt re-inspired by birth all over again. Just like the first time. It was out of the ordinary.
NOTE: This is a HIPPA compliant post. All parties involved authorized the re-telling of this story.
No one wants to be the “new girl” at work, least not moi! I hate being new at things, bad at things, stumbling through unexplored territory. There have been a few wonderful co-workers who have made the process much smoother for me, one of them being this adorable mama. She taught me how to do my first few tricky procedures, reassured me the first time I cried at work, and kept the spicy cheer-leading coming whenever it was needed those first few months.
I met her when she barely had a bump, and into her seventh month of pregnancy she asked me to do belly photos. We had nothing short of a blast doing the pictures, and at that shoot she said that she wanted me to photograph their baby once he was born, due in about 5 weeks. Something to look forward to well down the line!
One mere week later…this whole “antepartum and postpartum” photo shoot planning got even *more* interesting when he decided to come early and I was her labor nurse! Like a dream sequence, I felt like a total phoney in that room. Why on earth would one of our best nurses have the new kid be her nurse at one of her most intimate and positive-stress moments in life?
I asked her later, what the heck were you thinking? She said, “everyone needs to learn, Emily, and I think you’re going to be a good nurse. You are a good nurse. I wanted you to be there.” What a gift to ME, my goodness! And, to top off this too-good-to-be-true experience, she was nothing short of the picture-perfect, force of nature amazing birthing mama.
Then, I got to do the newborn photos of this ‘lil pumpkin (er, apple tree as you’ll see later). To date, this might be one of my most special births as a nurse and certainly one of my most unique photo session package deals! I even managed to shoot a few birth photos in between monitoring the baby and replacing IV fluid. Though, I didn’t have all the fancy gear at work so we had to make do with a point-and-shoot.
Thanks for letting me be there, J, A, & E.
We take more photos than ever before. We take them with our cell phones, with our computers, with our point-and-shoot cameras, with our digital SLRs. We also share more photos than we ever have before: facebook, email, text messages, personal blogs. Yesterday’s simple 35mm film camera and scrapbook have been replaced with today’s multimedia blitzkrieg of technology.
Yet with at least 10x the number of photos snapped and 5x the number of ways to snap them, we have reached a digital glut of intangible goods. If you don’t take the time to move photos over from your computer to a print, you have nothing but a fleeting moment in digital time…an unstable file that cannot be shared with anyone other than those in the present moment, sitting by your computer or iPhone.
We temporarily have more photos, but in the long run, we have almost none. Digital photography has improved the ease of the taking photos, but has clogged up the process of making photos.
I have certainly found this to be true for my own photo collection. When I used to shoot film, I selected favorites to put in photo albums as soon as the roll was developed. Now that I have moved to digital, I have computer folders and files, but fewer physical photos. I miss holding and seeing those selected moments. I am on a personal mission to make more prints of not just my professional work, but my own life as well.
Busy. Every one is busy. I get it. But make time for the tangible step. Make time to buy a print, to matte & frame a favorite photo, to put together a digital photo book. Put current photos on your fridge. Send current photos to your kids’ grandparents. Don’t rely on facebook photo albums.
Vow to make, not just take, photos.
For the past few years, I have spent my birthday week in Ojai, California. In the past, each trip has yielded a meet-up of several good friends, with a complicated schedule of airport and rental car pickups to accommodate an over abundance of company.
The house is sacred space to me. It belongs to dear friends of mine who have an open door, take-the-key policy. It is a haven for cooking, laughing, writing, drinking, sleeping in, and showering next to a tree after a long hike by the river. I have reveled in the chance to share this place with others and look forward to bringing more friends and loved ones there in the future.
This year, for a change of pace, I decided to spend some of my time in Ojai alone. While I was worried that the quiet would bring loneliness, it was actually an incredible opportunity to take my normally bustling schedule and force myself to simmer down and recharge.
One day, while coming in from a hammock laden afternoon of novel reading I noticed that the light in the sunroom was perfect for daytime photos, and decided to do a self-portrait series. One of the best parts of the photo series is the part you can’t see – that I did it myself. I used a 20 second self-timer, so I had about 10 seconds to find each posture once I ran from camera to mat. I did not have a tripod, just a picnic table that was slightly off balance. In the future I think I will look at the organic nature of this project nostalgically. It was just me, my camera, my mat, and incredible surroundings.
Fusing my respect and love of nature with my practice of yoga, this is what forced solitude inspired…