A new documentary, The Mama Sherpas, explores the ways that midwives are making a difference in hospital births. Here, one of the film’s subjects, Kayt, celebrates with her husband after birthing baby Harper naturally. (Photo: “The Mama Sherpas”)
For anyone who’s only witnessed a birth through the lens of Hollywood — or even experienced one through the medical eye of their own ob-gyn — the seven birth scenes in The Mama Sherpas, the latest Ricki Lake-produced documentary debuting July 21, may be a bit of a shocker. That’s because they’re all calm, free of fear, and led not by the practitioners, but by the laboring moms themselves. And they take place in hospitals, not in some candlelit living room.
The beautiful births are used to illustrate the sort of magic that occurs when American midwives who practice in hospital settings (as most do) have the full, collaborative support of the obstetricians on staff.
“Mama Sherpas explores the middle ground between the two extremes [of home birth and doctor-led hospital birth],” Brigid Maher, the film’s director, tells Yahoo Parenting. “Not only does it show the diversity of how midwifery is practiced within the hospital system, but the diversity of births you can have, which is incredibly important and empowering for women to see. It can help normalize our views about the birthing process, which we often think of as terrifying — and it doesn’t have to be that way.”
The 77-minute film introduces viewers to various midwives working at four hospitals around the country — from Davis, Calif., and Springfield, Mass., to Alexandria, Va., and Washington, D.C., where the director is based.
Maher, a film professor and mother of two whose past projects include a documentary about Muslim women who are religious leaders, was inspired to examine hospital midwives by her own birth experiences. With her first child, now 7, she was blindsided when she wound up with an unwanted C-section.
“In retrospect, I was such a candidate for a C-section when I walked into the hospital,” she explains, recounting a common domino effect of birth interventions — induction, breaking of water before the onset of active labor, Pitocin-fueled pain, epidural, hours of pushing, and the dreaded “failure to descend” — that ultimately led to her cesarean.
“I was a professional woman who did all the prep for what was going to come with the baby after, but it never occurred to me that I had to prep for the actual labor and delivery process,” Maher says. “I was the typical kind of consumer, trusting my provider, and I chose [induction]. But never was it brought up that any of these [interventions] could raise my chances of C-section.”
Director Brigid Maher, center, with Ricki Lake, left, and Abby Epstein. (Photo: “The Mama Sherpas”)
She walked away disappointed but not defeated, explaining, “I wanted to have that experience of giving birth, so I informed myself the second time around.” She felt clear about wanting to have a VBAC — a vaginal birth after cesarean — and said some friends referred her to a local midwife, Whitney Pinger. “I thought, OK, I’m going to look to VBAC, and I found through my research that midwives provide the best support for that. My last experience wasn’t that great, what have I got to lose?” What she found through the Midwives Model of Care — which looks at birth as a normal physiological event rather than a medical one — pleased and astounded Maher.
“It was so very different than my previous experience [with an ob-gyn] — just the holistic-care approach of who are you? Where are you in your life? Who is your support system? What’s your birth plan? What are your eating habits? How can we make that more optimal? And also the coaching involved. … I was stunned at just the level of interest and care in just 15 minutes [at a checkup],” she says. “I kept thinking, I had no idea this existed — and it made sense to me. I thought, of course this is how it should be. But then I realized that my previous experience was the norm and not this, and that shocked me. So that was the germ of my idea for the film.”
Another subject in the film, Mariah, after a successful VBAC delivery. (Photo: “The Mama Sherpas”)
The range of birthing women’s experiences looked at in Maher’s film is truly diverse, and includes a woman striving to have a VBAC after a “manipulative” birth experience in which her doctor pressured her to have a C-section by telling her, among other things, “Your vagina will look so much nicer afterward.” (Spoiler alert: Her empowering VBAC delivery is one of the most poignant moments in the oft-tear-jerking film.) There’s also a first-time mom determined to birth vaginally despite her baby being breech, a hearing-impaired mom who must rely on an interpreter to understand what’s happening when her baby’s heart rate suddenly descends during labor, and a recent Somali immigrant who learns she must have a C-section due to having a condition called placenta previa.
Lake and Abby Epstein signed on as producers of Maher’s film after it was completed — similar to how they lent support to the 2014 documentary Breastmilk — also featuring clips on their website, My Best Birth.
“We loved that the film focused on midwives working in a hospital setting and collaborative care,” Lake and Epstein tell Yahoo Parenting in a joint statement. “This is something we were not able to cover in The Business of Being Born, and it’s really the scenario that will affect most women, since 99 percent of births in the U.S. take place in hospitals.” Still, they say, “Our understanding is that the midwife-doctor model is not something that is regularly taught in medical school or accepted as a superior model in this country’s birth culture.” And much of the reason behind that is economic. “Sometimes midwives and obstetricians are perceived as competitors and a threat to each other’s livelihood, instead of collaborative partners with complimentary skills.”
Lake and Epstein point to the dangerously high C-section rate in this country — which stands at over 30 percent — as the strongest reason for providers to adapt the midwifery model. But, they add, if the statistics aren’t enough, “There are also more intangible benefits that cannot be quantified: Midwifery care is about supporting women in their choices and empowering them to make educated and informed decisions throughout the pregnancy, birth, and postpartum journey.”
That supportive approach, Maher explains, is what prompted her to choose the title she did for her film. “On the first day of shooting, a midwife was seeing her patient, and she said, ‘We’re your guides. And I like to say that we’re your sherpas — we’re your guides along the journey up the mountain. You have to climb the mountain yourself, but we’re there to guide you,’” she recalls. “And I thought, what a great metaphor.”