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What Did Mammy Do?

June 15, 2011

What Did Mammy Do?

Genny White

On many occasions growing up, I would visit my Grandmother.  I loved to climb up onto her big 4 posted bed and talk and visit with her.  From as far back as I can remember, Grandmother had a picture on her chest of drawers that was taken of her when she was about 6.  The photo featured a strong and handsome black woman in a rocking chair holding a child on her lap.  I came to know this woman as Mammy, and the child, a girl with straight long hair adorning her face and shoulders, was wearing a plain gingham dress: she was my grandmother in her own girlhood.  I always thought that it was interesting that she had this photo on her chest of drawers of her beloved Mammy, yet did not have framed and up a photo of her own Mother.

As grandmother would tell, Mammy was a black woman who worked with her mother and family. Both Mammy and my great grand mother were midwives.  My grandmother’s Mother, Gertrude, was the daughter of a Cherokee Indian woman and white English man.  She serviced the white women of the community with Mammy assisting her, and Mammy served the black women of the community with Gertrude assisting her.  Grandmother would share that not only did her Mother serve the community as a midwife and she  managed a brood with Mammy’s help of 13 children, but that she worked the other end of the spectrum by assisting families at their homes when a death was imminent.  She would help them, as they sat vigil with the dying and then with the final preparations, in the washing of the body and of the laying the body out —  a modern day hospice and mortuary.  It was evident that these two ladies Gertrude and Mammy were busy ladies in the community, and that my Grandmother, the eldest of these 13 children, carried the weight of running of the household in their absence.

Grandmother shared a most amazing story regarding Mammy.  One evening at dusk after the family had finished their supper, Mammy went out of the house to dump the left over scraps outside when she was suddenly blindfolded, and what she understood to be a pistol rammed into her side.  She was being kidnapped by a man.  The man forced Mammy into a buggy and then carried her blindfolded off some distance and then led her still blindfolded into a cabin where only then did he remove the blindfold and what was there before Mammy but one woman alone laboring in the most stoic of conditions.  The man shut the two women (midwife and laboring mother) in this rustic cabin.  And there Mammy did attend this woman and was the sole witness to this woman’s delivery.  Upon the birth of the child Mammy was held at gunpoint and forced to take this newborn and drop him into a well.  After cleaning up the mother and the surrounding cabin, Mammy was again taken blindfolded and with the cold hard steel of the barrel pressed against her ribs, taken back to the buggy, where they traveled some distance.  The man then threw Mammy out on the corner of the property of my Grandmother’s family home.

I did not think about this story and what happened with Mammy for years.  It fell to the recesses of my mind. Until I myself began attending births and discussing the history of Midwifery in my course work.  As I attended births, I would think of Mammy and what she had endured quite often.  Had she had a chance to escape?  How did she respond to this situation?  How did Mammy attend this childbearing woman’s labor?  How did Mammy leave this terrorized woman?

What can we do when we find ourselves in less than ideal situations in childbirth?  We may not be blindfolded with a pistol pressed into our side, but from time to time we may be blindsided and feel pressed in by circumstances beyond our control.  What do we do when these things happen?  How do we care for childbearing women under the most horrendous of scenarios?  Remember Mammy she was swooped away without anything.  All she had was herself when she stood before this childbirth.  What are the tools that she had, that we have?  She had dialog, and perhaps like Beth Bose, CNM, she asked the woman, “I know that this is not what you want, but is there anything that is important that I can do for you?  Beth Bose, now retired foremother of midwifery in Indiana, was paged to a birth where she found an avid homebirther had been brought in to the hospital having contractions with vaginal bleeding, after being involved in a traffic collision.

Beth looked this traumatized woman in the eye, and said “I know that this is not what you planned on, it is not what you wanted, but tell me is there anything that I can do to make this better for you?”

The couple replied that when the child was born that they did not want anyone gleefully announcing the sex of their child to them, and that if possible they would want to receive their child and discover for themselves the sex of their infant.

I am firmly convinced that we do have tools available to us to care for childbearing women in less than ideal circumstances.  We have our voice, we have our eyes.  We can look at mothers with a knowing and understanding look.  We can make eye contact with them. Was Mammy allowed to speak?  I don’t know but she had the power of her eyes and could speak with them.  We have our hands that sometimes know intuitively how to touch, and sometimes have been trained in Shiatsu for midwives.  We know how and where to touch, a stroke of the hair, a palm against a furrowed brow. Our hands can say so much. And what about our voice we can calm, we can sing over our mothers, and we can command with our voice.  Did Mammy find herself alone with this mother singing some spiritual psalm over her to aide both of them along on the journey of this birth that they were traveling along together?  We do have tools when the going gets rough — most notably we have ourselves.  When we stand in the presence of birth, whether it be under the most ideal of conditions or the most adverse, in the end the best tools we have for dealing courageously with childbirth are those that we find within ourselves: our dialog, our eyes, our voice, our touch, and all that comes from within ourselves.  We can all take this knowledge that comes from sitting on Mammy’s lap.

Our book Men at Birth can be found at Amazon – we also have a kindle version.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. May 28, 2013 7:41 pm

    Wow. It’s hard for me to imagine being in a situation even remotely close to these circumstances. However, when my clients ask what things I bring with me to a birth, my response is always “my hands, my voice, and my heart.”

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