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Midwives

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The medical area in which women were perceived to be natural experts was reproduction. Childbirth was a particularly dangerous time for women, as many women and babies died during the process. Constant hard work and lack of proper nutrition increased the occurrence of complications for early Albertan women. Often living away from their female relatives, women who gave birth for the first time were not always aware of the procedure and lacked advice on how to deal with the pain of pregnancy. Also, it was often taboo to speak of women's reproductive issues and women had a difficulty sharing the knowledge that accrued from their experiences. Medical facilities were either nonexistent or too far away to be readily available. Therefore, to cope with childbirth some midwives became experts on the subject. 

To become a midwife a woman would usually apprentice under another midwife or a travelling doctor. Midwifes would often receive some sort of pay either in the form of money, goods or free services. Aboriginal and mixed blood women were some of the first midwives, often bringing indigenous expertise to their practices. For example, one pioneer describes her child birthing experience with a Métis midwife:


Once I was pregnant seven months and I started to flow. I had an old Métis woman who came to look after me. Do you know how she saved my child? It seems funny to say, but she had somebody skin a freshly killed muskrat, and she put the whole skin on my belly. I was thinking I would smell of muskrat for 10 years to come. "Oh, no," she said. "That's going to go away." And I kept my baby. It stopped the bleeding. 1


Some women could not have their own children took particularly joy in becoming midwives:

"Well, I brought 26 babies into the world, all on my own with no doctor. It's given me such a gorgeous feeling. I wanted to be a nurse, and I wanted to be where little children was. I loved the kids, but I didn't know I couldn't have any children. So I gave all my love to all the kids." 2
Therefore, midwives performed an important work in helping pioneer women through one of the most difficult events of their life. Unfortunately, with the rise in the number doctors, nurse and hospitals in the West, midwives increasingly came under criticism for being unsanitary and lack knowledge of medical science. Women were encouraged to give birth in hospital under the care of doctors. As a result, although the profession never disappeared, the number of midwives was greatly reduced.
 

Sources:

  • Silverman, Elaine Leslau.  The Last Best West.  Montreal: Eden Press, 1984.
     

  • Langford, Nanci.  "Childbirth on the Canadian Prairies, 1880-1930."  Telling Tales.  Eds. Cathrine Cavanaugh and Randi Warne.  Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2000. 

 

  
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