This past year, I spent the majority of my time preparing my senior Anthropology field research project on the work of the midwife in the highlands of Guatemala. I took an ethnographic methods course, a field preparation course and a K’iche’ language course. I spent many hours in the library researching periodicals and articles and attended talks and conferences on women’s health. My eyes tired and glazed over in front of the computer screen unnumbered times as I wrote my research proposal. Though I knew it was not perfect, I felt good about the work I had done. At the end of April, I was ready to work and see my project in motion.
All the preparation in the world would not have prepared me for this. Not a drop of regret exists for having done the preparation, and I feel indebted to the professors and peers who helped me. That said, the expectations I built up beforehand have been fulfilled, surpassed, shattered and re-imagined.
Being a midwife, I’ve decided, isn’t easy work. Nicolasa, the woman I live with, delivered three babies on Mother’s day. Isn’t that fitting? Then, about two weeks ago, she left at 11 p.m. to deliver a baby. A bouncing baby boy entered the world, and the mother was fine, except for a brief moment when she lost consciousness. “We gave her air, and she came back,” Nicolasa said. Later that night, she got home and slept maybe an hour. Before the cock crowed, at 6 a.m., she was up again, knocking on my door, telling me it was time to deliver the next baby. Many prayers were said for this young woman having her first child. Later that night, one of Nicolasa’s patients, who has private medical care (which includes the presence of a doctor, a nurse and a midwife in the birth) told her to hurry over because it was her time to give birth. A week later, another baby was born, but the mother was in trouble, and in the middle of the night, Nicolasa took the nerve-wracking hour-long trip to a hospital to help save her life.
I have been present on a few of those occasions, and it overwhelms me. After the birth where the mother was in danger of dying and was raced to the hospital, I laid in my bed for many hours with my thoughts racing – worry crinkling my brow and prayers whispered across my lips. The straightforward assurance and calm but serious demeanor of Nicolasa crossed my mind. How did she know, and how was she so sure? It takes some people years of study and an arsenal of machines and potions to welcome a new person to the planet. Somewhere amidst the thoughts, worries and restlessness, I fell asleep.
When I woke up, Nicolasa was already about her daily duties: cooking breakfast for eight, doing accounting for the minibus and mini-taxis her sons and employees drive, getting her youngest child and grandchildren ready for their school day, washing clothes, preparing her chicharrines (pork rinds) to sell – her day’s work. I had slept in, worn out and tired from the night’s work, but she was moving her world along as normal.
Being a midwife is a calling. It’s not something she sought out; it’s a gift she was born with. She didn’t go to school to learn it; she already knew it. Though she has a hundred other tasks that drain her time and energy, the labor of ushering people from another world to this one is her mission. It is her calling, and she magnifies it. From what I can see, it isn’t easy work, but it doesn’t need to be. She knows what she is doing.
Andrea Nelson is a senior majoring in anthropology, studying midwives in the Kich’e Indian communities of the highlands of Guatemala.