We are very proud to introduce our readers to Larkspur Woman, Lauren Slak. This passionate Orange County midwife is a graceful, warm spirit full of wisdom and gentle strength. We visited Lauren at her office and intended to spend just an hour getting the basics of her practice. Two and a half hour later, we left completely energized by the fantastic conversation we'd had. We learned so much that we're bringing you three posts in this Larkspur Woman series--a series we're calling Midwife Mondays. We know you'll love getting to know Lauren and the awe-inspiring work she does to help women bring their babies into this world.
Walk us through the first 5 minutes of your day.
The first thing I do is check my phone to see if anyone texted or called me. My phone is the way my clients get ahold of me. I have a smaller midwifery practice and I keep it that way because I like clients to be able to get in touch with me personally when they need to. I want them to text me if they have questions.
How did you decide to become a midwife?
The idea came to me when I was studying abroad in Kenya. I was a Creative Writing and International Relations double major and went to Kenya for my IR honors thesis on maternal and infant mortality. The World Health Organization and UN had released the UN millennium development goals and one of them was reducing the maternal mortality rate in the third world. It was one of the least funded goals—and still, 16 years later, we have not reached even half of the goal. At the point that I went to Kenya, I was interested in maternal mortality from a policy perspective, but not from an actual birthing perspective.
So what changed once you actually got there?
When I went there and tried to start doing research, because I was a woman and because I was in a predominantly Muslim region of Kenya, I was not able to get interviews with anyone in the government. Even people in the hospitals wouldn’t speak to me because most of the obstetricians were male and asking questions about births was not something that women did there. I remember calling my thesis professor and saying, “I’m going to fail my thesis because I have only two interviews and my whole trip is going to be for nothing.” He said, “Why don’t you go to talk to the midwives?” I think that was the first time I’d even heard that word. I knew nothing.
So I got connected with a woman named Sister Asia—a nurse midwife with a clinic on the bottom floor of her house. The clinic was three rooms—one for prenatal exams, one for delivery, and a lab in the back room. I ended up working with her for the rest of my time in Kenya. She let me catch babies while I was there and I was completely hooked.
What do you mean, “catch babies?”
Just put your hands out and catch a baby! Unlike in hospitals, where there can be a lot of finagling with mom, a midwife in Kenya would just have her hands out and let the baby slide into her hands. That was my first experience with birth so it didn’t seem strange to me.
When I was in Kenya, the thing that was shocking to me about being allowed to catch babies was that I had no medical training. But the woman I was with was like, “Oh yeah you can do this because you’re a woman.” I was invited into births immediately and always felt like, “Oh my gosh this is such an honor and I am so unqualified for this.” But their attitude was, “You are a woman. You’re a part of our tribe. You can do this.” I’d never felt that way before.
So how did that lead you to midwifery here in the States?
Like I said, I was hooked after my experience in Kenya. When I came back to the States I started doing research on going pre-med and becoming an obstetrician. I was trying to figure out who delivers babies here in this country. And through a series of coincidences I found midwifery.
What is a midwife exactly?
There are two types of midwives in the United States—nurse midwives and certified professional midwives. Nurse midwives are the vast majority here in the U.S., but most nurse midwives deliver only in hospitals. After researching, I realized I didn’t want to do that. So I chose the Certified Professional Midwife (CPM) route.
Our license allows us to deliver at home, in birth centers, or at hospitals. The problem is that even though we are allowed to work in hospitals, no hospitals will hire us. There is only one CPM in all of California working at a hospital. Hospitals only want to hire nurse midwives. The main difference is that a nurse midwife gets her RN first, and then specializes midwifery. A CPM studies midwifery that whole time. In most other countries, there is just one type of midwife and I wish it was that way here, but the boards that govern the two separate types of licenses haven’t been able to agree on common ground as to how we can combine the licenses.
What is the CPM training like?
It’s a 3 year didactic program, a book of clinical skills that you have to have completed and signed off on, a certain amount of clinical hours, and a certain number of births that you have to attend. You have six years to finish everything. I worked for two busy home birth practices in San Diego County and then at a birth center in Virginia. So I attended the deliveries of a little over 100 babies just in my training alone.
What is the difference between a midwife and doula?
A doula is not a medical profession. They are all about emotional support. When they come to the birth, they’re rubbing your back, giving you sips of electrolytes, and coaching you through. I love doulas. They can really help moms so much. A midwife on the other hand is the medical provider—we take the place of an obstetrician or a family planning doctor. My clients do all their prenatal exams here in my office, and I come to the birth with all the standard delivery and medical equipment that you’d have in a hospital delivery room. I monitor the mom and baby throughout the birth and take care of them both after the baby is born.
What is it like bringing life into the world? Does it change how you view yourself?
I don’t bring life into the world! The moms bring life into the world. If I’m doing my job really well, I’m just holding safe space for them to do it. I don’t want anyone to say, “I couldn’t have done it without you.” Because I believe that yes, you could have. I’m just making it safe for you to have your baby. But in terms of what it’s taught me about myself, midwifery pushes me past what I thought was possible like…a lot! And the training was very intense. Coming through that with all the knowledge I now have makes me feel powerful.
How has being a midwife influenced your feelings as a whole on femininity and womanhood?
Like I mentioned before, the experience of being allowed to catch babies in Kenya simply because I am a woman was a very powerful experience for me. It stuck with me when I came back here. One thing we do here at our offices is hold Red Tent Events. Essentially we create a space for women to come and talk about womanhood together in a safe space. Women share their birth experiences and work through birth trauma with one another. We welcome them bringing their daughters once they start their periods. It’s sweet initiation into womanhood. It can be very powerful.
What’s the last thing you saw that inspired you?
There’s an organization called Carry the Future that is collecting used baby carriers to send to refugee families from Syria. A lot of the refugees trying to cross into Greece are women with small children, and having their hands free can be life saving. I volunteer my office as a drop-off location where people bring their carriers to donate and then I send them over to the organization.
We encourage the women to write a little note and attach it to the carrier. Even if the woman who receives the carrier can’t read English, you’re a mother speaking to another mother who’s in this horrible situation. Carry the Future sent out an email recently that they’d found a volunteer to translate the notes. It was so uplifting to think of the moms in Syria being able make a connection with a mother thousands of miles away.
Photos courtesy of Lauren Slak. Black & whites by Elise Lauren Photography