This post was most recently updated on December 7th, 2022
These snippets of fiction are written to help spread the word about our campaign #MarchWithMidwives 2022. I hope to paint a picture of how the absence of maternity care universally available, free at the point of contact, is so important. I hope to show how crucial midwives who are truly autonomous, well paid and well supported are to the general health of society. I write to show how communities would step up in a fractured and inequitable future – in fact how they are already stepping up to support new parents on their journeys through a broken system.
Not much imagination is needed to bring this world to life. Everything I have written here already happens someone in the world and is the logical outcome of us not intervening now to radically change and improve our maternity care systems.
To join us, please ask to join the March With Midwives facebook group
Birth in the Year 2073, episode 1: The Great Queue
Derisa lifted her ancient head from Malina’s swollen belly, tracing the dark line from pubis to navel with infinite care and smiled. She had heard the good, strong drum beat of life. Malina had been feeling well and her urine looked clear – as much as she could tell. Her Great-grandmother’s words echoed in her head: “nurture the mother, Derisa. Feed her well and unburden her of her work and cares. She is creating. We must make space for that.”
Malina smiled back at Derisa and caressed her belly, feeling somewhat reassured. The baby had been very quiet yesterday. She knew there were no guarantees though, despite Derisa’s wisdom, passed down through her family, she knew mother nature could be a cruel mistress. She knew the baby may have malformations as yet unseen, or born with problems that could result in anaemia or internal bleeding. She did not know her blood type and had joined The Great Queue at the beginning of this pregnancy to ask for blood tests. If she needed the Anti-D injection it, Derisa had told her, it would stop her losing future babies. But after 11 hours, her swollen ankles, aching back and screaming bladder had made her abandon her plan. She hadn’t even made it to the tent that marked the half way point to the hospital and would have had to leave even sooner if it weren’t for the kindness of an old man, who allowed her to sit for a while on his camping chair, gave her a sandwich, and told her of his memories of another Great Queue for a dead Queen Malina had never heard of.
Malina had walked home in silence, wearing her worry like a dark, heavy cloak over her shoulders. Even if this baby survives, she had no idea whether future siblings would make into the world. The thought of that brought tears to her eyes. Her mind furiously searched for ways to jump the Great Queue. She thought of the man who worked for Premium Health that she had dated a few years back….but why should he put his job on the line to smuggle her in? Money. She needed money. Money she didn’t have, and had no prospect of getting. Being a single mother was hard, already, even before this little one had reached the size of a dormouse.
Derisa saw the slight crease between Malina’s eyes and laid her gnarled hand on her shoulder. “I will do everything in my power to protect you and your child, my dear. You have all you need within you to bring this child earthside. All we can do is trust the Goddess Eileithyia to be the guardian of your passage.”
Melina sighed, “Thank you Oma, I will try to be brave.”
Derisa bade farewell and left the house. The broken pipe in the street had still not been fixed and fetid water mixed with sewage lapped up against the garden wall. Gathering her skirts, Derisa lept deftly over the stinking pool with a grace that belied her great age and turned purposely in the direction of Alice’s cottage in the next street, thinking of the stories her great grandmother had told her; of the days before The Great Queue, when women like her were trained and paid, when hospitals were free for all and when mothers died at a rate of less than ten in one hundred thousand.
Alice’s wake was the fourth Derisa had been to in the last few months. She had bled after having her baby and there had been nothing Derisa could have done. Despite successfully stopping the bleeding by encouraging her uterus to contract with her skillful hands, Alice had faded away before her eyes. Derisa had been able to see that the placenta was not complete. All she could hope was that Alice’s body would be able to expel what was left inside her. But so depleted was Alice after a lifetime of poor diet, poor housing and the bearing of many children she did not wish for, Alice had had no more strength for the fight and sepsis had clawed it’s hot tendrils into her heart. Derisa had called the Municipal clinic to ask for antibiotics, but by the time the paperwork had been done and the fee scraped together by the neighbourhood, Alice had gone.
Overcome at the memory of those days and how she had finally managed find some time for herself and visit a fellow birthkeeper’s house and cry in her arms, Derisa sank down on the grass, wept hot tears and watched as the funeral cars rounded the bend and parked up outside Alice’s house.
Birth in the Year 2073
Episode 2: Birthnurses, Birthkeepers and Mavericks
“I’m so worried about Abigail”, Derisa murmured through the steam curling up from her cup of mint tea.
“Yes, me too”, replied Basma in a voice that was less diplomatic and louder than Derisa’s. “She is not gentle, not safe, not loving!”
“I saw her push down on Tina’s belly and slap another woman when she wouldn’t open her legs. She won’t learn from the other birthkeepers, and hasn’t studied the old books. She’s a liability.”
“I hear you”, Derisa says, more firmly now. “I heard she pulled on a cord because she was in a hurry. The woman kicked her away because it hurt and all was well. But I worry it’s only a matter of time before someone is harmed.”
“She reminds me of Dorca”, said Basma. They both lapse into silence, lost in thoughts of the old woman across town who uses animal droppings and her knitting needles to end unwanted pregnancies. The Great Queue means that community abortion is a necessary evil, but Dorca is unsanitary and brutal and risks bringing the corporation-cops down on them all.
“There’s not much we can do, I suppose”, mused Basma, taking a sip of her tea. “All we can do is warn families and try to educate them. Most of them freebirth anyway.”
Basma laid her hand on Derisa’s forearm and squeezed. “We do what we can. I’m visiting the municipal birth house tomorrow. Apparently there is a Birthnurse there who used to be a community birthkeeper, so she knows and respects us. She wants to open one of the rooms to our families, who can’t pay, if we feel they need more medical help. Do you want to come with me?”
“I’d love to,” responded Derisa. “But how on earth is she going to get away with that? She’d be sacked by the Nursing Corporation and lose her registration for crimes against Capitalism.”
“I don’t know”, mused Basma, elegant finger tips rubbing her brow as lines knotted her usually smooth forehead.
Birth in the Year 2073
Episode 3: The Milk Of Human Kindness
Derisa’s index finger found itself lodged in a hole where the doorbell should be. It hurt. Extracting the finger, she rubbed the arthritic joint absent-mindedly, then knocked on the door with the jaunty rhythm so familiar to the families of this neighbourhood. Lara opened the door, baby on her hip and a small, dirty, dark haired child clutching her thigh.
“Oh, it’s you. You’d better come on in then,” said Lara, jerking her head in the general direction of the kitchen.
Derisa stepped over the threshold and into the gloomy hallway, walls covered with wax-crayon scribblings, a broken bike leaning against the bannister, and followed Lara into a small room at the back of the house. It was lit by south facing large windows that looked out onto a rough patch of scrubby grass and a broken fence. The room, despite Lara’s obvious poverty, was cheery. Plants hung in macrame slings from the ceiling and children’s drawings were pinned on the wall.
Lara’s stern face softened as she watched Derisa lower her old, aching body down onto a chair and look her daughter in the eye with a broad smile. The girl responded with a shy grin and ran back to her mother. Derisa looked up at Lara, a keen eye taking it all in – the weary look of her stooped shoulders, the smudges around her eyes that betrayed the recent tears and the pinched, pale face of her baby.
Tentatively, Lara moved to Derisa’s side and laid her 12 week old in the old woman’s lap. Old fingers gently cradled the infant, expertly exploring the child, taking stock.
“How’s she feeding?” asked Derisa. Lara didn’t need any more encouragement for the story to come tumbling out.
“She’s too skinny, I know that. But she wouldn’t nurse, she just wouldn’t…turned her head and wailed. So I went to Megamart and bought some Aptigate and a bottle…she drank it like a dream and by the time the tin was empty, my breasts felt empty too. I didn’t mean to wean, it just kind of happened and now she won’t latch at all….and the milk is so expensive, they even lock it away in Megamart….I don’t know how I am going to afford to feed her this way….” Lara’s voice trailed off as a huge lump in her throat silenced her and tears spilled over onto her cheeks for the second time that day.
Giving her a moment to compose herself, Derisa gazed at Lara with infinite compassion, reached forward and squeezed her shoulder kindly. “I can see you’re really worried, dear one. How do you feel this little one is doing in herself?” Lowering the baby back into her mothers arms and helping Lara sit, with a cushion behind her back, Derisa waited for the mother-wisdom to surface. “She’s not good,” Lara replied. “She’s too skinny and she doesn’t seem interested in anything anymore. She either just stares or cries a weird high pitched cry I’ve never heard before.”
Derisa nodded and hummed a noise that indicted she was listening intently. “Can I ask, do you put the number of scoops in the bottle that it says on the tin?”
“No”, Lara admitted with a grimace. Tariq just doesn’t earn enough and I can’t find a job because the municipal nursery is full and the private ones around here….well, you know…” Derisa nodded again, another noise rattling her throat, this time signally disgust at the system and grief for Lara’s situation.
“And what do you do during the power outages?”
“I make it up with cold water”, Lara replied. To be honest, the electricity is so expensive these days that I tend to make it up with cold anyway. Is that wrong?”
“If there are bugs in the powder, the hot water kills them”, Lara replied. “So it’s best, if you can.” I’ll see if the Municipal birth house can help with some milk from their stock – there’s a birthnurse there who some times slips me some when no one’s looking. And if you’d like me to, I could ask Flo down the road to express for you – she’s making oceans of milk. Mmmm and could Tariq spend a Saturday in The Great Queue? I think this little one should be seen by a plebmedic, just to check there’s no infection.”
Lara nodded, having been heard, and having at least a semblance of a plan, felt a tad better. Wiping her eyes, she allowed herself to sink further back against the cushion, exhaustion enveloping her in waves.
“Perhaps little Tina would still like to lie on your skin?” Derisa’s statement had the upward inflection of a question, allowing Lara to wonder for herself whether this might be true.
“Yes, she always loved it when she was newborn. Here, Tina-weena, darling girl, snuggle up on mama’s chest, just like you used to….”
“Sometimes they latch like this, especially if we can invite your milk to return”, Derisa almost whispered. Leaning her head in even closer, her voice even quieter, she murmured, “We have a breast pump. Aria stole it from the woman she was working for. She wasn’t using it any more and it was just sitting in a cupboard. You could borrow it and start trying to increase your supply…if you wanted, of course.”
Lara looked at Derisa, startled, frightened, but overflowing with gratitude. “I don’t know how to thank you, Derisa.” And tears dropped off the end of her nose and on to the top of tiny Tina’s downy head.
A while later, walking home, Derisa passed the massive billboard for Aptigate, plump blonde baby sucking greedily on a bottle in the arms of his young, beautiful, blonde mother. She sucked her teeth, rolled her eyes and not for the first time, wished billboards were made of paper like when she was a child, just so she could deface the damn thing.