Carol Leonard wasn’t called to be a midwife — she was “smacked upside the head.” It was during the birth of her son that she knew women needed to take a stand for better birth options, and she has since become a founding mother and the second president of Midwives Alliance of North America (MANA), an award-winning author, and a midwife who’s delivered babies internationally. This week, she shares her story with Mother’s Advocate.
What led you into midwifery?
Well, I wasn’t led exactly — it was more like being smacked upside the head. I was giving natural birth to my son in a hospital in 1975, and my hands were tied down — literally. That’s the moment I became a midwife.
Most modern midwives talk about being gently “called” to the profession. I think the Universe has never been very gentle with me. Like a slow learner, just to make sure I got the message, I had to be tied down and degraded to understand that women needed — and deserved — better birthing options.
How is modern midwifery different from that of earlier times?
Actually, I’m hoping that the hallmarks of good midwifery in past times are still of foremost importance today: compassion, skill, intuitive knowing and honesty. Midwife means “with woman,” which to me means doing everything in your power to protect, guide, and maintain the safety of a birthing woman.
It seems the childbirth experience in hospitals is quite different from what it was in the 1970s — much more home-like. Did midwifery influence that change?
I’d say that the birthing women themselves demanded these changes. But, lest we get too complacent; the hospitals may look comfy…but our cesarean section rate in the U.S. is a travesty. And, due to the outrageous rate of C-sections, the maternal mortality rate in the U.S. has skyrocketed. The current risk of maternal deaths is greater in the U.S. than in 40 other countries, including virtually all industrialized nations. This is a disgrace.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned in three decades of practicing midwifery?
Trust — trust in the process and trust in a woman’s ability to birth with the innate wisdom of her own body. Trust that for the most part, I should just sit on my hands.
What has been your greatest accomplishment?
I was, purportedly, the first Westerner to deliver a Soviet baby in Moscow, in 1990 right before the USSR collapsed. It was filmed and aired on 20/20 with Barbara Walters. It was a pretty cool story. That baby boy, named Milan after my son, called me from Moscow 14 years later to thank me!
Where did you get the title of your book, “Lady’s Hands, Lion’s Heart?”
The title comes from a quote by Aristotle that I love: “A midwife should have a lady’s hands, a hawk’s eyes and a lion’s heart.” Besides, Leonard means lion-hearted! The book is actually separated into two parts — the first being “lady’s hands,” and the second being “lion’s heart,” although that had more to do with what was going on in my personal life. (You need to read the book!)
What do you hope for next?
Wow … I’d have to say that every childbearing woman in the U.S. should have access to high quality midwifery care, whether in a hospital with the care of Certified Nurse Midwives, or at home with Certified Professional Midwives.
Carol Leonard, a “foremother of the modern midwifery movement,” is a New Hampshire-certified midwife who has been practicing for the last three decades. She is co-founder of the Midwives Alliance of North America (MANA), which represents all midwives in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and served one term as its president. She recently published a memoir about being New Hampshire’s first contemporary midwife, “Lady’s Hands, Lion’s Heart: A Midwife’s Saga,” from Bad Beaver Publishing, 2008. She has proudly attended approximately 1,200 babies born safely in their own homes.
The featured interview, originally published in New Hampshire Magazine when Carol Leonard was nominated one of New Hampshire’s Most Remarkable Women in Healthcare — 2010, was repurposed with permission from Leonard.
We love to hear from our community! Share your experience with midwifery — whether you’re a midwife, or worked with one during your pregnancy and birth.