Sarahn Agyriwah-Henderson, Midwife
For the past three decades, Sarahn Agyriwah-Henderson has delivered hundreds of babies the natural — and, some say, controversial — way: in the comfort of the mother's home.
Atlanta - Monday, August 10th 2009 - When I got started as a midwife, it wasn’t something that I planned on doing or meditated on doing or had gone to school to do. I had just graduated from Clark Atlanta University, and a month later I gave birth to my oldest child. It was a planned home birth and it was a great, empowering, satisfying experience for me, my husband, my baby and those who were with me.
At the time, my midwife was also expecting. She was still early in her pregnancy. When it was close to time for her to deliver, she invited me to her birth as a support person. So there I was, helping my midwife do what she helped me do six months prior to that.
The evening she gave birth, she told me that there was something about me and my hands that really helped her when her labor got difficult — just by laying my hands on her and massaging her and trying to make her feel comfortable when she was having labor pain. She told me that she felt like my hands were the hands of a midwife, and she asked if I would lay my hands before her so she could look at them and feel them. So I gave her the palms of my hands and she said, “If you would like I can train these hands.” And I said, “Well, sure, yeah.” It felt right. I didn’t have to think about it. I think it was probably because of my nature. I was always a person who wanted to have something to take care of.
Two months later, two women came to me and told me that they wanted me to be their midwife. They had gotten in touch with my midwife, and she referred them to me. I went home to tell my grandmother what had happened, and she told me that I had probably inherited some of my gift from my great-grandmother, who was what they called a "country doctor" back in Barnesville, S.C. The country doctor was also a midwife.
The next thing I knew, I was getting called off to the first woman’s home who was having her baby. I went over to her house, and soon after she said she felt she was ready to begin pushing, and I composed myself so that I could be confident and supportive. I delivered my first little boy. A month later, the other lady had her baby. That was my first girl.
After those two ladies, word got out in the community, and before I knew it — before I started officially apprenticing — I must have delivered six or seven babies. I then started apprenticing, and I did that for another four years. I’ve been a midwife for 29 years now. I stopped counting how many babies I delivered once I reached about 50. That was many years ago. I’ve probably delivered several hundred babies.
When a birth is taking place, the midwife is there offering support in many ways: walking with the mother, massaging the mother and giving her encouragement. We’re also there to monitor her wellness — mentally, emotionally and physically, along with the baby. One of the things that I do is try to bring with me a sense of naturalness, normalcy, peace and some humor. In addition to that, there’s the safety part of it. We have to be alert and aware of the mother’s and the baby’s progress. We keep a mental timing on how labor is progressing. We're with her, kind of like guardians, especially if it’s their first experience.
The practice of midwifery is kept alive by referral and word of mouth. Other than that, some other places to search would be places like a health food store, because usually people who shop there are living natural lifestyles and are attracted to natural births. Also, when people take childbirth classes they can ask their childbirth educators.
Midwives are always trying to make themselves legitimate, because there is always someone who will not legitimize midwifery. It started hundreds of years ago, especially in the Northeastern parts of the United States, where midwives were challenged — and sometimes their lives were threatened. In the South, not too long ago, there was a big push to try to eliminate the midwife and to encourage everybody to have their babies in hospitals with doctors. That is a universal challenge.
The best thing about what I do is meeting people from different parts of the world. By being with them throughout their pregnancy and their birth, I’m allowed to learn their culture, traditions and ways of life. The other thing is being able to watch the babies grow and become adults, and go to their weddings and deliver their babies. I’m on my second generation now. Knowing that I’m living a purposeful life is the best thing of all.
Candace Wheeler, Writer of Creative Loafing
Joeff Davis, Photographer
All My Babies: An Inspiration
- Thursday, January 24th 2008 - Mary Coley's “babies” and her legacy as a midwife were celebrated and filmed in the documentary All My Babies, in Albany, Georgia 55 years ago. Coley was an Albany mother of 11
who became the subject of All My Babies, a 1952 film directed and produced by George C. Stoney as a training film for midwives. Coley would deliver more than 3,000 infants in
Dougherty, Lee, Mitchell and Worth counties before her death in 1966. The film has been used for education around the globe. At the time, Mary Frances Coley was upheld as the standard
among midwives, caring for expectant mothers in their homes and safely delivering their babies.
Who would ever have imagined that a quarter of a century later, I would meet (over the phone) the very person who inspired me through his visionary lens, Mr. George Stoney? He is 91 years old and proud of it (who wouldn’t be if you were still able to teach film at New York University and run four miles per day?)! I’ve been in correspondence with him since the filming of the All My Babies sequel, which took place this past October. He has since mailed me a complementary
DVD copy of All My Babies that includes him narrating the makings of the film back in 1952 when racial tension and segregation in the South were at their peak. We have read the life stories told by Grand Midwife Margaret Smith, Gladys Milton, Onnie Logan and Claudine Curry Smith; the documentary about Ms. Mary Coley, the featured Grand Midwife in All My Babies supersedes these legendary midwives. This is a classic and should become (if it is not already) part of your collection. Ms. Mary Coley is the midwife who inspired me to research and capture the lives and stories of midwives of African descent, particularly Georgians. It was the winter of 1980 when I saw this movie at a local library in downtown Atlanta. I had given birth to my first child just months before and had already begun to attend births that same year. As I attentively watched the
woman before my eyes, I began to realize that she was speaking to me and I realized it would be part of my calling to midwifery to research and document the history of Georgia’s midwives. I drove home as quickly as I could, then immediately called the main local hospital in Dougherty County in Albany, Georgia to try to discover the whereabouts of Mrs. Mary Coley. I was told that she had already passed away and that all the information I wanted to know about Georgia’s history of midwifery was at my fingertips right here in Atlanta. As a result of my research, I
scheduled field trips to rural parts of Georgia, meeting, photographing and documenting the stories of Grand Midwives. The Birth Gazette published one of my stories about a 111 year old
Grand Midwife (Ms. Mattie Varney), whom I met in a housing project nestled in downtown Atlanta. My latest published story is about a 104 year old Grand Midwife named Mary Revere
whose story is featured in the September/ October 2007 issue of Mothering Magazine. You can find her story in the Living Treasure section of the magazine. I hope to release a book,
The Legacy of Georgia’s Grand Midwives and Grand Mothers, in the v near future. All of their stories are amazing and inspiring. In fact, the hanging scale I use today to weigh babies was a “hand-me-up” gift from a retired Grand Midwife I met in 1982, who used it when she used to deliver babies in her county. It was a scale given to her by the Health Department after she completed her training as a registered licensed midwife.
By Sarahn Henderson
Black Midwives and Healers Review Volume 5 Issue 1 Winter 2008 P.O.
About Birth in the Tradition/ Mother's Keeper:
Birth in the Tradition TM, and Mother's Keeper Inc. is a community based Midwifery, Labor and Post Partum Doula/Montrice service offering prenatal, birth and postpartum services to low risk mother's in Georgia since 1980. Individualized, customized, and holistic prenatal care is provided on a personal basis. This includes prenatal support, nutritional guidance, prenatal education, labor assistance, in-home visitations, postpartum and newborn education, breast feeding support and referrals to outside resources to support a healthy pregnancy, birth and postpartum recovery for the new mom. A team of professionals are available to meet your need which includes your Midwife, her assistant, an apprentice, OBGYN, Pediatrician, Lactation Specialist, Natural Childbirth Instructor, Labor and Post Partum Doula's, Herbalist and Natural Path Doctor.
Specialties include, VBAC's, Water Birth, Lotus Birth, Placenta Encapsulation, Birth Photography, Herbal Knowledge & use, Belly Casting, Blessingways Planning, and Traditional Birthing Practices from various parts of the world. Birth in the Tradition believes in returning birth to the family. This is the culmination and beginning of journey which began with the couple. The midwife is here to support the normalcy and naturalness of a healthy pregnancy and birth to the very best of her ability. She is not take over birth unless her midwifery skills are required. At the same time, she is there to provide the comfort, wisdom and expertise of her craft, knowledge and skills appropriately. Prenatal care begins once a mutual agreement has been made between the midwife and her client and continues six weeks after birth. In many cases an extended family relationship continues a lifetime.