Atlanta Birth Center owes its existence to the hard work, vision, and endless support of Margaret Strickhouser, co-founder Atlanta Birth Center and owner of Intown Midwifery. Margaret was interviewed by volunteer Anne-Claire Kasten about her perspective on birthing, her work as a midwife, and how the community can help make her dream of the birth center a reality. Below is part one of this three part interview series.
Anne-Claire: What birth stories did you grow up hearing?
Margaret: Really not very many. The only birth story I heard was of my mother’s birth when my oldest brother was born. My parents lived in York, Pa in a three story brownstone with my dad’s family. My mother went into labor and evidently delivered very rapidly. The story goes that my grandmother, one of my aunts and one of my uncles came into the room on the third floor to help, but another of my aunts had fainted, so they just stepped over her. Obviously my mother did just fine birthing my oldest brother Fred with very little assistance. I have no other memories of birth stories as I was the only girl in a family of five and all the kids in my neighborhood were boys, so birth was really not a topic. However this contributed to making me a very strong fighter when it comes to fighting for my beliefs!
I was born in 1944, got out of high school in 1962. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I got out of high school except go to college so I could leave home. At that time, you either got married or had a job. I wasn’t dating anyone and I certainly didn’t know how to do anything, so I was going to go to college. I majored in Home Economics but I knew by the end of that first year I knew that it was not for me. I remember agonizing at the end of my freshman year, “What am I going to do?” My favorite subjects in high school were biology and math, and I had a love of people and helping, so I decided to go to nursing school. St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, NC had a nursing program in collaboration with Presbyterian Hospital School of Nursing in Charlotte, which is where I grew up and where I was a candy striper. I was also born there at this hospital one block from our house.
When I got out of nursing school, I really didn’t think I was capable of caring for a whole floor of patients, because they had stressed in school how much responsibility we would have and how hard it would be. I really only wanted to be a normal person, work 9-5 and have weekends off. Therefore I obtained a job in the operating room as a staff nurse at Emory University Hospital. I spent a lot of my life trying to be a normal person and once I realized—it took me a long time to realize—I was not normal, I was a fringe person, then my life became better.
Everything that I did in my life was a stepping stone to becoming a midwife. I certainly didn’t know it at the time and only realize it in looking back. I didn’t necessarily choose to be a midwife, I was led to be a midwife. I always say I didn’t choose, midwifery chose me.
Anne-Claire: One of the first things I read when I was pregnant was Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. One of the things I found really interesting was the whole section of one birth story after another. They’re not always easy, but they’re all so empowering. What are your thoughts on why it is important for women to share their birthing stories, especially the evidence-based, unmedicated, natural childbirth ones that we’re trying to support?
Margaret: The thing that has happened in this country is there’s so much technology surrounding getting pregnant, staying pregnant, and having the baby that I think the medical professionals think they invented the whole thing. Women have been brainwashed into having no confidence in their body’s ability to do this. The birth machine and thus women is driven by fear. “Oh, that could hurt the baby,” or “you’re so big, you probably won’t be able to have the baby” or “there might be some abnormality about the baby, we need to do more ultrasound scans.” The obstetrical community says some of these things all the time, rather than trusting that the woman can birth the baby. It’s fear driven. That’s not to say that things don’t happen, but we’re alert to them and deal with them as they come up. It’s a matter of us being indoctrinated into a totally different plane. When you watch TV and everybody on there is saying to get an epidural, it makes it seem like it’s the only way to do it.
That you avoid the discomfort of birth at all costs. There really are other choices, and labor and birth are bearable and doable if we don’t try to control birth the birth process.
In nursing school, my favorite subject was OB. It just resonated with me. They taught family-centered maternity care in 1967, but that wasn’t being practiced anywhere in the United States. Everybody had twilight sleep. The thing about twilight sleep is that women just went to sleep, woke up later, and had no memory of the birth. They had to be told that they had a baby. Talk about disconnect and detachment syndrome.
Anne-Claire: Do you feel the birthing scene since you arrived in the late ‘70s in Georgia has changed in any way?
Margaret: In those days, women who wanted something different had to have a homebirth or come to the Birthing Center in Douglasville, which was the obstetrical unit of the Douglas General Hospital.
Dr. Richard Stewart and three midwives were the only providers that did births there. We were doing birth differently, it was very much like a birth center with lots of natural births and women going home 6-8 hours after having the baby. We had tons of women coming to us. At one point we were doing 50 births a month and it was all word of mouth. So other hospitals started looking at us, like how do we do that? So then Northside got one birthing room. Then, eventually, all the hospitals had LDR rooms—labor, delivery, and recovery—which were all essentially birthing rooms and they all hired nurse midwives. But they would still practice the same way. It was like they were thinking, women are wanting something different; they’re driving all the way to Douglasville, so we’ll give it to them. But they didn’t get what “it” was.
I was in Douglasville for 12 ½ years and we had patients come from all over—but it was all word of mouth. We didn’t have the internet. The internet is what has made the birth movement explode and this is what’s going to really make a big impact for change in Atlanta. Women have to be unhappy with what they have in order for there to be any change. If they’re okay with the status quo, it’s not going to change. But finally women are speaking up!