Marisa Langston Simon ’94
This profile originally appeared in Bowdoin magazine, Vol. 72, No. 2, Winter 2001
Nurse midwives are proud of their holistic approach to providing health care to women. On the walls of their offices, it is common to find posters, framed cards, stitched samplers-reminders of their calling: Midwife: with woman.
Marisa Simon made the decision to become a midwife before she'd ever seen a birth. "I knew it would feed my soul," she says. "I wanted to make a living meeting the needs of 'The Common Good' instilled in me by my time at Bowdoin." Marisa had decided she wanted a career in health care before she attended Bowdoin, but that desire grew stronger during her four years in Brunswick. In a class with Professor Susan Bell called "The Sociology of Disability and Illness," Marisa first learned about midwifery as a viable profession. Soon after, she switched her major from Bio/Chem to Woman's Studies. Later, in an independent study with Professor Bell, Marisa explored the experience of childbirth. It is, in fact, the experience of the birthing process that midwives focus on-the experience of birth for the mother. Marisa shares with her clients what is happening both physically and emotionally to their bodies, and supports them in their natural process. Communication is a large aspect of her job, and this support is crucial to the philosophy of midwifery. Pointedly, Marisa makes the distinction that she "catches" babies rather than "delivers" them, referring to herself as a birth attendant-"The mother delivers the baby," she explains.
The profession of certified nurse-midwives (CNMs) fights with age-old stereotypes for proper respect even today. The connection between midwives and witches, which dates back to colonial times, remains prevalent. "Oh, no," thought Marisa on a recent trip to historic Salem, Massachusetts. The wax figure with pointy hat and pointy nose cradled a baby, while the recording cackled, "I'm a midwife." Midwives are not, of course, witches. They are well educated and highly trained professionals-all CNMs are Registered Nurses with certificates in midwifery, and many also have master's degrees (Marisa holds a Masters of Science in Nursing from the University of Pennsylvania). Furthermore, while midwifery often connotes home birth to many people, in actuality, over half of all CNMs work primarily in an office or clinic environment, and 99 percent of CNMattended births occur in either birthing centers or hospitals.
While certified nurse-midwives are qualified to administer drugs, perform medical procedures, and provide their clients with other technological interventions, they rely on technology only when it is medically necessary. This brings up another common misunderstanding about midwives, Marisa laments: that they are anti-establishment. "Which is not the case at all," she explains, pointing out that she works in conjunction with the medical establishment-she even married a doctor. With most of their work conducted in clinics and hospitals, a midwife is able (and will) summon a physician to assist if a pregnancy becomes "abnormal." Perpetuating this misunderstanding is the fact that CNMs provide much of their care to low-income women, immigrant populations, and other at-risk mothers who don't have access to the medical establishment. But, as the benefits of nurse-midwifery are better understood by the general population, educated women are now beginning to become aware of the advantages of the practice, and bring with them overdue credibility for the profession.
Part medical professional, part social worker, part psychologist, mother, and friend, Marisa's first concern is that a mother's basic needs are met. When a woman enters her office, regardless of her social status, Marisa asks about such things before anything else. "But, the hard part," she says, "is when you ask these kinds of questions, you have to be prepared for the answers you get."
Midwives have been attending births in America since its colonization, and the profession of nurse-midwifery was established in the early 1920s as a response to an alarming rate of infant and maternal mortality in the United States. The American College of Nurse-Midwives remains the nation's oldest women's health care association.