I’d like to declare this Saturday, for all who care to join me, Intercultural Love-Your-Birth-Attendant, Own-Your-Birth Day. This Shabbat while Christians celebrate a certain Jewish baby whose mother, according to the story, had to search for a safe place to give birth to him, Jews will be reading in the Torah about the daring birth of Moses and the heroic midwives who helped make it happen.
In this week’s Torah reading, Shemot, the beginning of the book of Exodus, we find the Israelites thriving in Egypt under the rule of a new Pharaoh who fears their growing numbers and tries to bring them under his control. When enslaving them and putting them to work does not fully crush them, Pharaoh decides that the best opportunity to strip the Israelites of their power is right at the moment of birth. First, he instructs the midwives to kill all the baby boys as they are born, and when they ignore his decree, he orders all baby boys thrown into the Nile.
According to the midrash, this does succeed in breaking the morale of the Israelites, at least of the men, who separate from their wives, ready to give up. But the women convince them, and as we know, babies continue to be born, and at least one boy survives.
Pharaoh almost accomplishes his goal of completely subjugating the Israelite people. But somehow amidst the backbreaking work and heartbreaking decrees, a seed of hope remains among the people. And this bit of faith brings a few gutsy Israelites to do what remains in their power, which eventually leads to freedom.
And all of this hinges on who controls birth. Pharaoh is the king, but he imagines himself a God. He presumes dominion over everything. The Israelites bother him because they are other, and he’s not entirely sure he wields complete power over them. He reasons that if he can prevent the boys from being born, he’ll be fully in control again. Birth, Pharaoh believes, is directly controlled by midwives, and midwives, like everyone else, answer to him.
But the midwives, we are told, fear God, and without directly refusing Pharaoh’s order, do not kill the baby boys. When Pharaoh asks why, they respond, (Ex. 1:19) ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’ I wonder, is this a lie? Are the midwives attending births and pretending not to have made it in time? Or is it the truth, and the Israelite women, knowing the midwives’ orders, are choosing to birth without them? Or maybe it’s somewhere in between. If the midwives were really killing babies, the women would certainly not call them to their births! Whatever the case may be, the midwives are telling Pharaoh, “You have misidentified the source of power. We do not control birth. Birth belongs to the women. You can make it difficult for them, but you can not stop them from having babies.”
When Pharaoh moves his plan out of the birthing room and into the Nile, he leaves just enough room for a woman, emboldened by the power she feels in giving birth, to save her son. High on the power of bringing life into the world, Moses’ mother manages to place him in a position of power in the palace. She gets herself hired as his nursemaid so that she can nurture him physically and spiritually, and along with his adoptive mother, Pharaoh’s own daughter, raises him to be a compassionate yet strong adversary to Pharaoh.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The point is, birth is powerful. It was then and it is now. And it’s a little bit out of control. At some point during labor, a woman must admit, “I will not control this process in the same way that I control other elements of my life. I can experience it. I can even do the miraculous, but I can’t maintain that kind of control.” And when we give in, and accept that loss of intellectual control, particularly if we’re surrounded by support, encouragement, and confidence, our bodies know just how to birth babies. That, I believe, is the message, and the blessing, of the midwives in our story. They support, encourage, and comfort. They guard the safety of the birth environment, but they know they are not in control.
Thank God, we’re not living under the likes of a Pharaoh, who would turn birthing rooms into murder scenes in his quest for total domination. We do, however, live in a culture that loves to be able to control the mysterious. And birth makes our culture nervous with its unpredictability, its power, its urgency. As medicine and technology develop, we gain the ability to control more and more aspects of birth, but there are still elements that we don’t fully understand.
When birthing women are supported and encouraged, their voices and their choices heard and respected, the experience can be overwhelmingly powerful and totally miraculous. And it can embolden new parents, having accomplished the unbelievable, with the help of a mysterious unknowable power, to trust their abilities to parent their children, to guard their safety and nurture their bodies and souls.
The Torah doesn’t tell us if the midwives attended Moses’ birth, but I like to think they did, supporting his mother Yocheved in just the right way to help her not only to birth her son safely, but also to get up the courage to save him and raise him to be the leader our people needed. Love-Your-Birth-Attendant, Own-Your-Birth Day is about finding the people to support us through the birth experience that is right for each individual family. It is a day for parents to reflect on the support and encouragement they got from their health-care providers and whoever else accompanied them through birth. It’s a day for soon-to-be parents to think about how their health-care provider’s philosophy matches their own and the support they expect for the birth choices they will make. It’s a day for everyone who has found a birth attendant who’s a good fit for their family to let them know they’re appreciated. And it’s a day for anyone who hasn’t found that person yet to consider looking further.
Wishing a happy, Love-Your-Birth-Attendant, Own-Your-Birth Day to all!