Just about ten years ago I found myself on the set of a childbirth class with Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and a few other pregnant actors. As the actress who played the instructor was demonstrating how to do a perineal stretching exercise using olive oil, I realized she immediately needed a lesson. As the onset birth consultant for several scenes of the film Baby Mama, I felt it was my job to teach these leading ladies, and director Michael McCuller, how to properly stretch the area around the vagina to prep it for childbirth. It was absurd and amazing and ultimately part of my long journey to hear my calling: to help women during their pregnancies and births as a midwife.
My journey started with the birth of my own daughter. It was unquestionably hard, yet holy work. But, rather than being engulfed in fear or loss of control, surprisingly I was actually good at it! So I thought that if I could selflessly guide a woman to help her become whole and confident as she crosses into motherhood — during pregnancy and birth — then it would be my honor.
In 1992, I started teaching Bradley childbirth classes. Right away, women felt safe enough to talk to me about their fears. So I decided to take it a step further and get certified as a Holistic Prenatal Birth Counselor. I met many women who were traumatized by their births, who were victims of too many labor inductions by questionable hospital protocols, well-intentioned residents, time constraints, and doctors’ impatience to get on with their vacation schedules. As my students processed their emotions, I could somehow tell who would have a good birth, and who wouldn’t. “Being a birth counselor wasn’t good enough,” I kept thinking to myself.
Having been a birth consultant on several films, I took my job very seriously and was passionate about educating people on set and moviegoers about childbirth. But, it was a pregnant teenager who ultimately motivated me to act on what turned out to be much more than a hunch: I needed to be a midwife.
I was filling in for a colleague to teach childbirth classes to pregnant teens. After my second class there, this young pregnant girl approached me, took my hand and placed it over her heart. Her voice cracked as soft tears filled her eyes, “Miss Risa, Miss Risa, feel my heart racing so fast?,” she asked. “I’m so scared. Will you help me? Please come to my birth.” She, whom I nicknamed Young Metronome, was more than afraid: she felt alone and unheard. She needed to talk about her hopes and dreams, along with her fears; and I was proud of her for being brave enough to send me her S.O.S.
But the powers that be did not allow me to be her doula or friend in the delivery room. So I went home and cried all night. This young lady had to go from teenager to mom alone, and I couldn’t help her.
I reflected on the state of affairs in our country surrounding birth — the high c-section and infant mortality rates — and met hundreds more disempowered women in and out of my childbirth education, doula, and counseling practice. Their relationship statuses, financial situations or ethnicity did not matter. Rich or poor, educated or not — no one was spared the fear of a negative birth experience.
That’s when I knew: I had to become a midwife to help women like Young Metronomes throughout their pregnancies and births.
A few years after working in a home birth midwifery apprenticeship, I felt more than qualified and motivated for this enormous responsibility and attended Columbia University School of Nursing to get my masters degree in Midwifery.
Over the years, I have found that women initially come to me when they feel like they need a calm, wise and experienced voice to guide them into motherhood. As a midwife, that’s what I have aspired to do every single day. I help honor, safeguard, and strengthen the souls of mothers and babies as they come into the world. If I can help women gain confidence, and value their own birth and growth as mothers, then I know at the end of the day I’ve pursued the perfect calling as a midwife and continue to be good at something. And though it was fun to see my name running down the credits at the end of a news program or a movie, I find it so much more satisfying to see my name written on a birth certificate.