Noe Valley Voice October 2003

It Takes a Midwife to Make a Village

Essay by Maria Iorillo

Another Noe Valleyan was born. Sawyer Gladwin Strain arrived on Aug. 9, 2003, joining his sister Flannery Virginia Strain. Both Sawyer and Flannery are as native to Noe Valley as one can get. They were both born at home--on Noe between 24th and Jersey. On the rainy night two years ago when Flannery was born, we could have walked to Pasta Pomodoro on the corner for a break during the labor--that is, if we ever needed one. Flannery decided to come into the world quickly and easily. Her mother, Susan Gladwin, is eternally grateful for the speedy birth. Sawyer decided to come into the world just as readily. I know Susan, her husband Matt, and their children because I am their midwife.

I have always wanted to be a village midwife--strolling through the neighborhood recalling which baby arrived where. In my fantasy, I walk to each woman's house to check the progress of her pregnancy. I also walk to their homes when they are ready to give birth. I love the image of an excited 10­year­old boy running up to my house, knocking on my door, having been sent to fetch the midwife. "It's time," he says.

I've been a midwife for 17 years, mostly in San Francisco. My life as a licensed midwife seems quite far from that fantasy of boys running through the village. Cell phones, pagers, and answering machines keep me in touch with the pregnant bellies I have come to know. My Chevron bill will attest to the fact that no horse-drawn cart or buggy is coming to pick me up.

I did have a woman in labor just a block away once. In early labor, Sherry Richert walked up to my house, checking to see if her waters were truly broken. Shortly after, her labor picked up and I walked her home. In about five hours of strong labor, her son, Kayne Quani Belul, was born. I walked home from her house thankful for the safe passage and feeling the resonance of village midwifery that I had craved--my place in the community carved out by purpose and juxtaposition.

My father tells me that my grandmother used to help the other neighborhood women when they were in labor. I imagine dirt roads and a small Italian immigrant settlement in New York. I don't think she was a village midwife, but I gleaned from the story that the women would gather at a laboring woman's house. The local doctor would come to the house when it "was time." My father was born in this way in the house that he lives in now.

I've also traveled to Peru and parts of Africa. In both places, I met local village midwives who used folklore and tradition as the pillars of their understanding of birth. In Peru, I met a traditional birth attendant named Aullicha. I brought offerings of canned tuna and bread from the bakery, in exchange for the tidbits of birth lore and superstition that she abided by in her work. I was enamored with her worn hands and weathered face. Her nimble fingers spun wool as she spoke in Quechua, an indigenous language of the Peruvian Andes. I took careful notes to document my encounter with "the real thing." Here was the village midwife of my dreams--the wisewoman, so necessary for the survival of her culture.

In Africa, I stayed in a small town in Cameroon called Abongbang. I was visiting a friend in the Peace Corps. One day, we traveled to an outlying village. I rode on the back of a dirt bike down the road my friend helped build as a community development project. Without the new road, this village was totally isolated during the rainy season. As we stayed in the village throughout the day, our hostess made us a tortoise cake wrapped in plantain leaves. The women prepared food, cooked, cleaned, harvested food--basically worked all day long.

Our hostess, by the way, also attended births. But her humility demonstrated her belief as a midwife: birthing was just one more thing to do. After a long day of listening to stories about African life, the pygmies, and how modern ways affect village life, we accepted the turtle cake gratefully and rode our dirt bike back into town.

Other births in my neighborhood have made my village come alive. One time, a block and a half up the hill from me, I was attending Barbara, as she labored through the night with her first baby. Around 1:30 a.m., another family, the Fischer Hechts, on 27th and Diamond, paged me. Ann was also in labor, this time with her second child. Her labor had slowed. Ann and Shawn, her husband, were wondering whether they should go to sleep or try to stimulate the labor with herbs. I told them that I would send another midwife over to help them decide, but that midwife was coming from Marin. It would take a while for her to get there.

Less than an hour later, Shawn called back to say the labor had picked up on its own. I said I'd be right there. But before I left Barbara's house, I got a third page from Shawn. "The baby's head is out. No, the whole baby's here!"

I hung up the phone and ran down the hill to my house, carrying my large midwifery bag as I ran. I drove the six blocks to Ann and Shawn's house to greet Kailey who had arrived so quickly. She was healthy and strong.

Later that morning, I returned to Barbara's house, where she was still in labor. It was a planned hospital birth, so soon we went to St. Luke's Hospital on Valencia. Nigel was born at 9:30 p.m. after 24 hours of labor. He was a big and beautiful 9 pound, 8 ounce boy. I'm sure Nigel has seen Kailey over at Douglass Park. Little do they know what their moms were doing on the very same night.

Delivering babies, or as midwives call it, catching babies, in Noe Valley has helped create the village in my life. One of my greatest rewards is that more often than not, when I'm walking or driving, I see a baby that I've caught or helped into the world.

For me, midwifery has transformed San Francisco into small-town U.S.A.--this is my village and I am one of the local midwives. h

Maria Iorillo's practice, Wisewoman Childbirth Traditions, is now sharing office space with Natural Resources at its new location at 816 Diamond Street. Iorillo's web site address is