In 1980, my family grew to include children who had fled the conflict in Southeast Asia. They made their way to refugee camps in Thailand and Indonesia by foot and by boat and then as, orphans and unaccompanied minors, they arrived aour house in Portland, Oregon. I was thirty-two years old, pregnant and already a mother to two young boys. My husband was in medical school. We felt that love could accomplish all things and were children ourselves of the idealism of our generation. Our old wooden house would burst to overflowing as we faced, unprepared, the joys and challenges of bringing young people into our community who were sick, frightened, homesick and lonely.
Thirty-three years later, I made a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia with two of those now grown children. I had been to Cambodia twice before with my daughter but it was my first visit to Vietnam. I had volunteered as a midwife in Haiti and Gahanna and wanted to spend some part of my trip with midwives. They had grown up with a midwife- mother and knew this to be my particular and peculiar passion.
I was interested in how Vietnam and Cambodia’s midwives had managed through bombs, famine, genocide and years of conflict. I wanted to know how they became midwives and who helped them along the way. I wanted to know how their new governments had made the transition from war to peace while improving the maternal and newborn mortality rates of women and children. I wanted to know the situations in which my own children were born; of the practices and women who helped them take their first breath and survive.
I had wanted to offer the midwives of my children’s countries some small gift and so
before leaving, I had decided to offer training in newborn resuscitation through Helping Babies Breathe. I packed training materials and 40 ambubags to give to local birth centers. My children helped me to make contact with many local clinics and others I found through NGO’s working in the countries. Through them I gave many workshops, observed birth in a variety of settings and had an opportunity to meet many midwives.
I had become a midwife in the post Vietnam war years, when many of us struggled to create a way of life that would eliminate the causes of war. During this time, we formed food co-ops, schools, community gardens, and some of us were drawn to birth. I was working in Head Start and saw the harm of drug and alcohol use on the unborn child. I saw the need for parenting to begin long before my four- year old classroom. A co-worker asked if I would go to her teen age daughters birth classes and birth. It was my very first birth and I sensed then that in that place I could find, for myself, the moment where heaven and earth touched. After so much conflict from war, the civil rights movement and protest I felt a possibility of healing and peace.
I began my journey, as a midwife, slowly but without hesitation. In Cambodia, a midwife told me she was woken by a dream that told her to go and help a neighbor in labor. We are all perhaps, offered these dreams but it is often hard to get out of bed and follow them.
This is how it was for me, both as a midwife and as a mother. Once I knew that children from the refugee camps needed homes and families there was really never any turning back. Once I began to listen to the story of birth there was no choice but to listen.
While women in my country were making connections between war and corporate control over every part of our lives, the women in Vietnam and Cambodia were struggling to heal their communities and their families. Over and over again the women and the midwives told me that it was not birth that killed them or their children but war and famine. Most women had many children during this time and all, that I spoke with, lost several to starvation and a lack of basic medical care. I was reminded over and over again how deeply war impacts women and children and their ability to survive and protect one another.
In these stories, I try to capture the impact of war but also the resiliency and courage with which women preserved their families and their communities. As the guide in My Lai said, “It is hard for your generation of Americans to come to Vietnam.” It was often very painful and full of heartbreaking memories. Coming face to face with the lasting harm of Agent Orange on newborns left me sobbing with embarrassed, powerless, pent up tears.
Years ago, I had stood in silent vigils asking for the war to end. It felt right, no matter how difficult, that I make this vigil and stand beside the women and midwives of Cambodia and Vietnam. I tried to feel peace and to let my heart, so broken by the actions of my own much loved country, heal.
I am forever thankful to my children’s families who fed me, introduced me to older midwives and helped me find my way from place to place. For all the cups of tea, laughter and nights spent sleeping together I am grateful. To all the midwives of the world who deliver each and every baby with a silent prayer for peace in their hearts. For all women who deserve to give birth in peace and to raise their children with enough food, a free education, health care and a clean environment.
A photo of my children who came from Cambodia and Vietnam as adults.