by Heather Richard
I was thirty-seven years old, and ready to become a midlife midwife.
In our slightly rusted van, with five small children strapped into carseats behind me, I opened the letter from the university. Words of congratulations leapt off the page.
After years of advocacy, doula work, birthing two sets of twins and a singleton, I was going to midwifery school! I’d made my Ivy League dreams come true, and I had finally been invited to serve women in the wholehearted, comprehensive, well-woman role I’d always imagined myself in.
I picked up the phone to share the news with my mother, hoping she was home after her outpatient appendectomy, but Dad answered instead.
Serious words circled, vultures above our conversation: tumor, invasive, possible colostomy.
Even before pathology confirmed it, my soul knew that it was cancer. And even though I would spend weeks considering my options, I knew instantly that I wouldn’t be starting midwifery school in the fall.
On the day I opened that letter and the surgeon opened my mother, instead of answering the call to midwifery, I answered the call to be Mom’s caregiver. I took her to appointments, tests, and consultations. I set up her medicines in tiny boxes. I washed her when she needed to be clean. I held her hand after surgeries and held basins when she was sick. One day, I shaved her head and put the clippings in the nearby woods.
Within a week, we found a bird’s nest in the crabapple tree outside her window, her grey hair woven into the bird’s twig home.
For years I had marked off time in ten month blocks. As a student and teacher, it was the ten month academic year. As a mother and a doula, it was the ten month cycle of full-term pregnancy. I had been so ready to witness the ten month cycle of pregnancy as a women’s health care provider. But ten months to the day after I held that letter, I held her hand as she died.
So did I just give up my calling to serve women in pregnancy and birth?
Well, nearly four years have passed.
I’ve stopped attending births.
I never went to midwifery school.
I am not training to be a midwife.
I am no longer in the labor room, but I lead birth story healing sessions and Write Your Birth Story workshops. Two years ago while with a childbirth education class, I shared that I had officiated a wedding for friends.
“I love officiating,” I said. “It’s as beautiful and vibrant as being at a birth.”
“You should be a Celebrant!” another doula said.
Those words changed my life as much as the words on that ivory letter did, and as much as those words that confirmed my mother’s cancer.
A Celebrant is someone who creates mindful ceremonies for life’s transitions, and in that role I’ve found a way to answer the deeper call within, the call that was lurking under the title “midwife” I had once so desperately wanted to earn. I found a way to answer the call to honor the sacredness of the thresholds we cross.
I trained as a Life-Cycle Celebrant and I offered myself in service to others as they mark important moments in lives.
Instead of catching babies, I catch love stories, and craft them into ceremony. Now, I am a midwife of marriages. Women do the work of birthing, and midwives hold space at births and offer their wisdom and tools as appropriate. Couples do the work of loving, and Celebrants hold space at ceremonies and offer their wisdom and tools as appropriate. At the core or my work as an officiant, I hold space for couples to discover why they are joining together. I am doing the work of guiding people to a sacred space, ushering them across a threshold, and honoring the hard work of their journey.
Just like birth attendants do.
I know the pain of letting go of one dream to live the life that appears in front of you. I am not the midwife I imagined I would become. For a long time, I chastised myself for not following answering the call. But when I heard the word Celebrant, I saw a new vision of how I could live my purpose. In service. In honor of transformation. In ritual.
I think about my mother’s journey often, and I know this to be true: in many ways, I was my mother’s midwife.
I supported her care as she did the work of living and dying.
And as I once held space at births, I held space as she crossed the threshold.
And now, I am the midwife to marriages.
So perhaps I am a midlife midwife after all.
Heather Richard is a mindful, wholehearted mentor and teacher. She is also the mother of five children (including two sets of twins!), all born into the hands of midwives. For more than fifteen years, Heather has helped writers find their voice in creative writing classes and workshops. Learn about her Art of Story Catching retreats, classes, and workshops at heathergrichard.com. Heather holds an MFA in Writing for Children, and you can follow her blog on writing books for children and teens at hknightrichard.com. She lives in rural Western Massachusetts with her loud and loving family.
Photo of Heather Richard by Matthew Cavanaugh.