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  • Writer's pictureMary Shivanandan

The Gift of Life

By Alice Knaeble.

I first experienced the craft of midwifery in a remote (and I mean very remote-- we were an eight-hour safari drive from the nearest town of 50 people) Maasai village in Tanzania.  I had travelled there with some medical missionaries, from a hospital where I was spending my summer as a medical assistant.  One of the hospital employees had grown up as the daughter of  missionaries in Tanzania and married a Maasai chief. Now, every summer, they travel back, along with some other medical personnel, to visit the tribe and provide medical care for the surrounding communities. I was honored to get to know the Maasai people and experience village life first hand.   This included sleeping on the ground on a hillside overlooking Lake Natron (populated by thousands of flamingos), bathing in hot-spring-fed streams, helping with the care of the goats and cows, getting to sing with the elders, and playing with the many little children. The medical component of the trip consisted mostly in setting up clinics in our own and neighboring villages.  

However, the most striking part for me was a training we conducted for the Traditional Midwives. These women were so fabulous, inside and out! The instruction materials we brought for the women were pretty basic, mostly to help take better care of the mother’s blood pressure, techniques for delivery, uterine massage, and methods for helping the babies breathe post-delivery. We conducted the training in a one-room school house, with cement floor still cracked and gaping from the earthquake that shook the villages six years before. About ten women arrived, dressed in their finery--long brightly colored sheets tied to form loose dresses, ears and necks jangling loudly with beads and metals disks… They were magnificent, from the youngest in her late teens, to the oldest, probably around 40 but looking closer to 60. 

We began the session by having each of them go around and say their name and how many babies they had delivered: “12,” “65,” “130,” “274,” “innumerable.” These women were simultaneously proud of their art and humbly thirsting for more knowledge; they simply wanted to be better in helping mothers and babies, whether that meant following their age-old practices or listening to three young American women describe what works for them in the sterile west. There was a joy emanating from these women, while they laughed uproariously at a joke or solemnly recounted a difficult delivery.  These midwives deal in life and love, recognizing the gift of life and how close we are to death. As I watched these women, with heads together, problem solving, striving to learn new techniques, I longed to join their conversation, to roll up my sleeves and apprentice myself to their worthy craft. 

When I returned to the United States, I decided that my next few years of study would be directed toward the goal of becoming a nurse-midwife.  Desiring to incorporate my love of medicine with my love of Catholic Theology, especially the teachings of Humanae vitae, I chose to pursue a Masters’ Degree in Theology from the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage & Family at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC, before continuing training to become a Nurse Practitioner.  You see, there are so many delicate issues surrounding the beginning of life and so many miraculous moments in the procreation of children that I felt unprepared to speak to my future patients about them. I thought a more solid grounding in the teachings of the Catholic Church would aid me in better serving those women.  I know I wasn’t wrong! 

"...the child awakens to himself in the smile of his mother and likewise the mother sees the fruition of her Vocation in the eyes of her child…"

My coursework at the Institute led me to contemplate some of the following questions that I will only briefly outline here. First, on the positive side. Life is a gift, indeed the very being of a person is gift. The practice of midwifery, done properly, gets to interact with this gift on a daily basis by participating in the joys of welcoming a new life--the child awakens to himself in the smile of his mother and likewise the mother sees the fruition of her Vocation in the eyes of her child… How beautiful to participate in this joy alongside mothers and fathers.  On the negative side, I learned that there are many false practices in medicine to avoid.  Most of these flow from a “contraceptive” mindset, one that attempts to artificially control the giving of the gift by the Giver--that is, to control the creation of new life, only possible through observing God’s laws. It is almost impossible for the contracepting couple not to begin to think that the logical conclusion of their contrived, and in some cases, artificial reproductive union, must be an equally controlled, sterile, and artificial birth (Think about the rising numbers of unnecessary c-sections in the U.S., performed not for the safety of mother or child but for the convenience of a micromanaged due date). 

This website centers around issues of Humanae vitae and the Holy Family as a model for Christian Life, and I believe that the same philosophical and theological groundings for a proper understanding of the “nuptial embrace” ought to be reflected in the manner in which the fruit of that embrace comes into the world.  Now, the exact nuts and bolts of how to do that are beyond the scope of this brief post, and, as of now, beyond the depth of my training… I look forward to years of mentorship! However, these are questions, which should not be neglected by the medical community.  In fact, they are essential to understanding who man is and what health is for him. I am honored to get to ask these questions. 


Alice Knaeble is a 23 year old Catholic currently living in D.C. She has studied at Baylor University and The John Paul II Institute. She is passionate about medicine and faith and is pursuing a degree as a nurse midwife.

© KM Associates.

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