For the past three decades, Sarahn Agyriwah-Henderson has delivered hundreds of babies the natural — and, some say, controversial — way: in the comfort of the mother's home.
When I got started as a midwife, it wasn’t something that I planned on doing or meditated on doing or had gone to school to do. I had just graduated from Clark Atlanta University, and a month later I gave birth to my oldest child. It was a planned home birth and it was a great, empowering, satisfying experience for me, my husband, my baby and those who were with me.
At the time, my midwife was also expecting. She was still early in her pregnancy. When it was close to time for her to deliver, she invited me to her birth as a support person. So there I was, helping my midwife do what she helped me do six months prior to that.
The evening she gave birth, she told me that there was something about me and my hands that really helped her when her labor got difficult — just by laying my hands on her and massaging her and trying to make her feel comfortable when she was having labor pain. She told me that she felt like my hands were the hands of a midwife, and she asked if I would lay my hands before her so she could look at them and feel them. So I gave her the palms of my hands and she said, “If you would like I can train these hands.” And I said, “Well, sure, yeah.” It felt right. I didn’t have to think about it. I think it was probably because of my nature. I was always a person who wanted to have something to take care of.
Two months later, two women came to me and told me that they wanted me to be their midwife. They had gotten in touch with my midwife, and she referred them to me. I went home to tell my grandmother what had happened, and she told me that I had probably inherited some of my gift from my great-grandmother, who was what they called a "country doctor" back in Barnesville, S.C. The country doctor was also a midwife.
The next thing I knew, I was getting called off to the first woman’s home who was having her baby. I went over to her house, and soon after she said she felt she was ready to begin pushing, and I composed myself so that I could be confident and supportive. I delivered my first little boy. A month later, the other lady had her baby. That was my first girl.
After those two ladies, word got out in the community, and before I knew it — before I started officially apprenticing — I must have delivered six or seven babies. I then started apprenticing, and I did that for another four years. I’ve been a midwife for 29 years now. I stopped counting how many babies I delivered once I reached about 50. That was many years ago. I’ve probably delivered several hundred babies.
When a birth is taking place, the midwife is there offering support in many ways: walking with the mother, massaging the mother and giving her encouragement. We’re also there to monitor her wellness — mentally, emotionally and physically, along with the baby. One of the things that I do is try to bring with me a sense of naturalness, normalcy, peace and some humor. In addition to that, there’s the safety part of it. We have to be alert and aware of the mother’s and the baby’s progress. We keep a mental timing on how labor is progressing. We're with her, kind of like guardians, especially if it’s their first experience.
The practice of midwifery is kept alive by referral and word of mouth. Other than that, some other places to search would be places like a health food store, because usually people who shop there are living natural lifestyles and are attracted to natural births. Also, when people take childbirth classes they can ask their childbirth educators.
Midwives are always trying to make themselves legitimate, because there is always someone who will not legitimize midwifery. It started hundreds of years ago, especially in the Northeastern parts of the United States, where midwives were challenged — and sometimes their lives were threatened. In the South, not too long ago, there was a big push to try to eliminate the midwife and to encourage everybody to have their babies in hospitals with doctors. That is a universal challenge.
The best thing about what I do is meeting people from different parts of the world. By being with them throughout their pregnancy and their birth, I’m allowed to learn their culture, traditions and ways of life. The other thing is being able to watch the babies grow and become adults, and go to their weddings and deliver their babies. I’m on my second generation now. Knowing that I’m living a purposeful life is the best thing of all.