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‘Miriam’: A Midwife Who Makes House Calls

A new documentary centers on Miriam Schwarzchild, a midwife who aids in home births around New York City, where the trend is on the rise

Sara Trappler Spielman
November 23, 2015

At a recent screening of Miriam: Home Delivery—a new documentary from British director Juliet Jordan that explores midwifery in New York City—a group of Orthodox mothers, a group that I am a part of, showed up to the IFC Center in Manhattan proudly with our babies. The films follows the work of home birth midwife Miriam Schwarzchild, an unaffiliated Jew, with whom Jordan followed for three months in 2012, practically on call together. Miriam, who has helped with my own home births, has established a regular clientele for herself in New York City, where its a growing trend for women from diverse communities to give birth at home, including Orthodox Jews.

In the opening scene, a woman in labor tightly embraces her husband inside an inflated birthing pool they both share. We witness the baby emerging, gracefully sliding into water, as Miriam hands the slippery baby to its mother. In another scene, we’re presented with a contrast: an Orthodox woman from Brooklyn gives birth on her bed with the assistance of Miriam and a doula as her husband observes nearby. When the baby is born, the camera focuses on the new mother leaning into her pillow (her body parts are not ever shown) and a clock on the bedside table. Then, we see the husband smile. As is my experience, in the Orthodox world, our husbands are hands-on in other ways when women are in labor in the home. They inflate and fill the pool, say, or move furniture aside to make room for it, or shuffle their children to friends and relatives’ homes. Or, as seen in the film, they read psalms for a healthy delivery.

In Miriam, timing creates its own drama. There’s Oskar, a creative type who recently moved to Manhattan and went into labor during Hurricane Sandy. To perform her duties, Miriam had to cross a darkened bridge, which was closed to traffic, and ascend nine flights of stairs with a flashlight, in order to deliver Oskar’s baby—all without the use of electricity. The next day Miriam and Jordan traveled to Brooklyn’s Sea Gate neighborhood, which was devastated from the hurricane, to visit Sarah, who was due in a few weeks and whose home was now wrecked. “It became a bigger story because she might not have a house if she went into labor,” Jordan told me. “[Sarah] recognized that and we built up trust enough that I would only shoot what was modest.”

Jordan herself used a midwife 24 years ago in England and told me she was “amazed that home birth was not a mainstream option for women in the U.S.” This feeling is further impacted for Jordan because she knows “how amazing the experience of home birth [is]” and soon decided that Miriam, “an outspoken, crunchy character” was the ideal central figure for her documentary.

I had my first home birth after the release of Ricki Lake’s 2008 documentary, The Business of Being Born, which influenced a surge of home births. (Lake herself had her second child at home in New York’s West Village.) In Crown Heights, where I live, private screenings were held for Chabad women, followed by discussions very much in support of home births. While a majority of women still give birth at hospitals, home births has become increasingly more common for Hasidic women who typically have large families. A growing number seek a private, modest setting for what we consider a sacred event. As a result, there is even a niche community of fellow Chabad “home birthers” connecting through Facebook groups consisting of like-minded women.

Miriam told me it’s becoming popular in Hasidic Williamsburg, too, spreading “like wildfire from word of mouth.” Almost 50 percent of her clients are Orthodox, and 20 percent of them live in Crown Heights, where she’s been practicing for over 20 years. “Their main leader spoke a lot about not doing things unless they were really medically indicated,” Miriam says in the film. “So people feel like, ‘Well, I’m designed to do this, I’ve had a lot of children or I’m going to have a lot of children, I don’t want to have unnecessary interventions. The best way to avoid unnecessary interventions is to have a midwife and to stay home.’” (Home births, including prenatal and post-birth visits, can range vastly in cost, noted Miriam. They typically range anywhere from $1,700 to about $11,000, depending on insurance coverage.)

“To have a homebirth in the U.S. is to take a big step in an ‘alternative’ direction,” Jordan told me. “So I think that makes these women and their families brave.” Watching Miriam helped to validate my choice because it intimately captures an array of open-minded and strong women regaining ownership over the childbirth experience in its most natural setting.

Check out the film’s website for future screenings.

Sara Trappler Spielman is a freelance writer in Brooklyn.

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