Washington City Paper published a story yesterday that left me feeling… uncomfortable. Left me thinking, thank God I didn’t go that route. Left me scowling the same way I scowl after too much time in Georgetown, watching ninety-pound co-eds tripping over 200 year old sidewalks in $300 stilettos. The article was about, of all things, midwives.
It’s a long article, and maybe it’s just the author’s snarky tone, equating a growing trend toward midwifery care and natural childbirth with wealth and style. If what this writer says is true, George Washington Hospital is raking in the big bucks with it’s highly exclusive midwifery practice run by saleswoman-slash-midwife Whitney Pinger. I want to believe this article is just dripping with the writer’s own biases. I really want to, because if that’s not the case, then GW Hospital’s midwifery program is a kind of ugly stepsister to the midwifery I believe in, and am employing for my home birth.
“In addition to promising to adhere to a set of diet and exercise guidelines that would please the most traditionalist doctor, the women in Pinger’s practice must be in excellent health and agree to hire a doula, a birth assistant whose services can run from $800 to $1,200 dollars in the Washington area.
It’s no surprise, then, that the group [attending an informational meeting at GW’s midwifery center] is largely composed of the highly educated and the professionally employed. Pinger says she sees lawyers, doctors, and even OB-GYNs. They are athletic women who have pushed their bodies before and will apply the same strength and endurance to preparing for labor.”
All midwives (and there are MANY more in the DC area than just the GW midwives featured in this article) will encourage a healthy diet and physical activity, and while midwifery care is intended for low-risk mothers, mentioning “excellent health” in one breath and implying that means gym-buffed bodies or endurance athletes is disingenuous. Additionally, implying that midwifery care is only for those who can afford a thousand-dollar doula and the costs of those gym-buffed bodies is not an accurate picture of midwifery care or natural childbirth. It’s not meant to be a luxury item packaged and sold to the type-A Washington professional woman – which is definitely a key theme of the Washington City Paper article.
I would encourage the author to look a little further in her exploration of the trends toward midwifery care and natural childbirth. Take, for example, the Family Health and Birth Center off Benning Road in Northeast DC. Their website explains:
“The Family Health and Birth Center (FHBC) is a full scope birth center providing prenatal, birth, postnatal, gynecological and primary health care to women and their families in NE Washington D.C. FHBC is a special place for pregnant women, children, and their families. We view pregnancy and childbirth as normal, healthy events. We promote wellness and confidence related to birth and parenting. We provide women with care that is respectful and also responsive to their individual needs. FHBC welcomes all women and their families, with a primary focus on residents of Wards 5, 6, 7 & 8. Our goal is to bring affordable, family-centered maternity, well-woman, and well-child care to all who need it. …Birth care is offered at two sites, at the freestanding birth center at our location and at Washington Hospital Center. The FHBC midwives provide labor support and management and catch babies at both locations. Volunteer Doulas are also available to assist women in labor at both sites.”
FHBC also offers a highly successful group prenatal session in which mothers in their third trimesters meet in groups to discuss common concerns, answer questions and gain support and confidence in their roles as parents. A similar program and Unity Health Care in my own Columbia Heights neighborhood was recently featured in an NPR series on Pregnancy, Birth and Parenting.
The author might also have looked at BirthCare, a freestanding (not hospital affiliated) birth center in Alexandria, whose midwives have been serving DC area mothers and babies since 1987. When I first moved to the DC area, I began seeing the BirthCare midwives annually for my GYN care. Though I interviewed other midwives in the area (there are numerous independent midwives in practice here) I found myself most comfortable with the midwives at BirthCare. Their modest center on King Street is their office where all prenatal visits are done, and they have two birthing rooms for families who want a birth in the center. They also attend homebirths, and their practice is about 50/50 home and center. When I visit, I see women older and younger than me, women richer and poorer, and from all over the metro area, from the far suburbs to right in the heart of DC like myself. Though there is a waiting list should you decide later in your pregnancy to come to the center, it’s nothing like what the City Paper writer describes at GW:
Besides health trends, one less quantifiable factor also helps explain Pinger’s lengthy waiting lists: It’s human nature to want something not everyone can have. With a small number of slots, Wisdom has “exclusivity cachet,” [John] Larsen [chair of the OB/GYN department at GW] says. He’s seen patients who wouldn’t be candidates try to re-describe their health history, making themselves sound healthier than they are. He’s seen influence peddling, women calling the executive offices of the university to ask if there are ways they can jump the waiting list—and never knows what he’ll hear when the phone rings.
“Tell a lawyer, lobbyist, or top-level bureaucrat she can’t have something and suddenly she’s hungry for it,” he said.
I still want to think it’s the author’s tone in this article that bothers me, and not the actual practice at GW, which I’ve heard positive things about in the past. Even the title of the piece, Real Midwives of D.C., is a snarky tip of the hat to the “Real Housewives” reality series showcasing shallow, overprivileged women spoiling themselves in front of the camera. That’s a far cry from midwifery and natural childbirth as I know it. And it’s a skewed picture – her article is about one midwife in one practice. Use of the plural is a stretch, Ms. Masterson, and I think you’ve misrepresented the majority of midwives and women seeking their services in D.C. and elsewhere.
I’m off to read some Ina May Gaskin and restore balance to the universe.