Imagine working in a field where you’ve never personally experienced your specialty. Like a chef at an Italian restaurant who has never feasted on pasta. An artist who never stood in front of a Klimt and blinked away the dazzling golds. A sky-diving instructor who has never pulled her own cord. Or a policy-shaper who works tirelessly to improve maternal and child health services who has never experienced childbirth. I think experience changes everything, don’t you?
Julianne Weis would agree. She has spent the last ten years advocating for women. Clear in her purpose to eradicate preventable maternal deaths, it all somehow became even clearer when she experienced childbirth herself. This is a wonderfully eye-opening tale, and I feel proud to share it with you! Friends, please welcome Julianne.
I’m an American, but over the last 10 years I have lived in a dozen countries, including Niger, Brazil, and Ethiopia. In every place I’ve lived, I have worked on ways to improve maternal and child health services. I have counseled teenage moms addicted to crack in the slums of Brazil, helped clinics in the Congo adapt to the needs of handicapped mothers, and planned policy reforms to reduce maternal and infant mortality rates in Nigeria. I have witnessed a woman die from complications in childbirth.
I’m so determined that my job won’t exist in 20 years because all of the preventable maternal deaths caused by poverty and lack of quality health services around the world will have been eradicated, once and for all.
I chose this work because I have always felt strongly that women around the world, no matter their income or status, should have access to safe and supportive reproductive health services, but this passion was only intensified when I got pregnant myself for the first time last year. My husband and I had just moved back to the UK from Ethiopia at the time, coming back to the city of Oxford to finish off our PhDs.
Suddenly, I began to glimpse first hand the intense wave of emotions, responsibilities, and fears that come with carrying a child. I also knew how deeply privileged I was. I lived in a country that has dedicated so many resources to ensuring mothers are supported with quality medical and social services. I was seen by competent and caring midwives every four weeks in the first six months, then every two weeks until my due date. This is a luxury, not just as compared to “the old days,” but also to the present. Tens of millions of women around the world have no access to this kind of care.
As the end of the pregnancy drew nearer, I began to prepare more for the labour itself. I was planning on giving birth in a midwife-led birth centre without medication – barring emergency circumstances, of course. I practiced breathing and meditation, and would visualize all the women I had worked with around the world who had preceded me in undergoing the ardors of labor. I thought of these women’s experiences of birthing unassisted at home, in crowded urban hospitals, or in remote rural clinics, and how incredibly strong they were.
While my work focuses on ensuring women have necessary medical care in cases of obstetric emergency, I knew that for most women, birth is a normal event. Many of the women I’ve worked with in low-income countries have undergone numerous deliveries without either medical assistance or actual complication, utilizing solely their own personal strength to withstand the intensity of the escalating contractions.
Once my own labor began early one morning, seven days past my due date, I tried to muster up the strength of these brave women. The contractions went from ten minutes apart to three minutes apart in less than three hours, and remained that way for 10 more hours as I progressed through the first stage. My husband and I stayed at home in our small flat for the majority of the labor. The hours passed remarkably quickly as the contractions progressed in intensity until I was no longer able to speak through the pain. We called a taxi and went into the birth centre to find I was seven cm dilated. At this point, the intensity was overwhelming. The contractions were coming with hardly any break between, and it was impossible for me to continue breathing through them. I began moaning loudly, and was somewhat relieved when after two hours, the sensations shifted and I knew it was time to push.
The midwives in attendance patiently waited as I again mustered up the strength to continue to push for an hour, checking the baby’s heartbeat every three minutes to ensure he was handling the stress just fine. When my dear son was finally born and placed on my chest, the sense of astonishment and relief was overwhelming. Having lived and breathed pregnancy, birth, and babies in my studies and work for a decade, to hold my own baby in my arms was so blessedly surreal. I had done it! I now knew for myself the amazing, primal act of birthing a child!
Becoming a mother myself has shifted my perspective on my work immensely. Working in the abstraction of the policy world, where women become statistics and universal health recommendations are developed with little thought to local conditions and contexts, to now be able to put myself in a woman’s shoes as she finds out she’s pregnant, or as her contractions begin, or at the time she meets her precious baby – this ability to empathize means everything.
I now realize that it’s absurd to ask women who live in remote, rural areas, to pick up and walk 20 kilometers to catch a crowded long-distance bus to give birth in a hospital the moment their contractions begin. Can you imagine undergoing that kind of journey in the throes of labor? I now realize how frightening it could be to be stuck in prolonged or obstructed labor, with no assistance at hand. My own birth experience was so straightforward, but I can’t imagine if something had gone awry.
Or the ultimate pain – to have lived through a whole pregnancy and the overwhelming pain of labor to only lose that sweet baby in a wholly preventable death like asphyxia. But this is all too common: every two minutes around the world a mother will die in childbirth, but every minute, twenty babies perish from preventable causes.
My joy in holding my infant son is indescribable, and I wish all women went through their experience of becoming a mother with the same level of confidence and support that I did. No more forced pregnancies, unattended labors, or tragic infant deaths. These circumstances cause such levels of pain and suffering. I have seen it first hand on five continents.
And it’s the same everywhere. Everywhere, women desire love and support in their decisions regarding their path to motherhood. I’m so privileged to have had access to such a high level of care in my own experience this last year. It is never something I will take for granted or forget. And this experience has only inflamed my passion further to keep working for the day when all women round the world can say the same.
Julianne, this was very powerful: “…the ability to empathize means everything.” I’m so moved by how your personal experience affected so greatly your professional focus. Thank you so much for sharing yourself with us.