The Midwife as Status Symbol
By DANIELLE PERGAMENT JUNE 15, 2012
BESIDES being impossibly gorgeous mothers, what else do Christy Turlington, Karolina Kurkova and Gisele Bündchen have in common?
Each could probably afford to buy her own private wing at a hospital, but instead of going to a top-notch obstetrician, all chose a midwife to deliver their babies.
“When I met my midwife, her whole approach felt closer to home,” said Ms. Turlington, who delivered both her children — Grace, 9, and Finn, 6 — with a midwife at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York, one with the help of an obstetrician because of complications. A former model, she foundedEvery Mother Counts, a nonprofit organization devoted to maternal health. “I knew I wanted a natural childbirth.”
Are midwives becoming trendy, like juice cleanses and Tom’s shoes? It seems that way, at least among certain well-dressed pockets of New York society, where midwifery is no longer seen as a weird, fringe practice favored by crunchy types, but as an enlightened, more natural choice for the famous and fashionable. “The perception of midwives has completely shifted,” said Dr. Jacques Moritz, director of the gynecology division at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt and a consulting obstetrician for three midwife practices. “It used to be just the hippies who wanted to go to midwives. Now it’s the women in the red-bottom shoes.”
And like any status symbol, a pecking order has emerged. Just as getting your toddler into the right preschool requires social maneuvering, getting into a boutique midwifery clinic has become competitive.
“We constantly have to turn women away,” said Sylvie Blaustein, the founder of Midwifery of Manhattan, a practice on West 58th Street that has its share of well-heeled clients. Opened in 2003, the practice now has six midwives on staff. “Because of the quality of care, we can only deliver about 20 babies a month.”
“It sounds bizarre,” Ms. Blaustein added, “but midwifery has become quote-unquote trendy.”
Like obstetricians, midwives are medically trained and licensed to deliver babies. The main practical difference is that only obstetricians can perform surgeries, including Caesarean sections, and oversee high-risk pregnancies. On the other hand, midwives tend to approach childbirth holistically, and more of them provide emotional as well as physical care. This can involve staying by a laboring mother’s side for 12 or more hours and making house calls.
Nevertheless, misconceptions remain. “There will always be people who have no idea what we do — they think we’re witches who perform séances and burn candles,” said Barbara Sellars, who runs CBS Midwifery, a small practice in Manhattan’s financial district. “Sure, some women want a hippie-dippy spiritual birth and I can’t guarantee that. I can guarantee the quality of care.”
Ms. Sellars is considered one of the more respected midwives in New York, and her patients have included opera singers, actresses, bankers and models like Ms. Turlington. (Disclosure: of the more than 1,850 babies that Ms. Sellars has delivered, my daughter was No. 1,727 and my son was No. 1,798.)
It was that high degree of care that led Kate Young, a stylist in New York, to seek out CBS Midwifery when she became pregnant with her son, Stellan, in 2008.
“My friends who had the best birth experiences all went to midwives,” said Ms. Young, whose clients have included Natalie Portman and Rachel Weisz. “When you go to a doctor, you’re left alone a lot. You don’t have someone sitting there, looking you in the eye, getting you through it. When I thought about what I wanted for my child and how I wanted to have my child, every sign pointed to going to a midwife.”
The rising popularity of midwifery among cosmopolitan women also coincides with larger cultural shifts toward all things natural, whether it’s organic foods, raw diets or homeopathic remedies.
“Pregnancy is not a disease, it’s a condition,” said Dr. Moritz, whose own children were delivered by midwives. “We need fewer OB’s and more midwives.”
For other women, midwives offer a sense of control. “This is a time when women are asking more questions, getting healthy, wanting to be more empowered,” said Ms. Kurkova, the 28-year-old model, who gave birth to her son, Tobin, in 2009. “I didn’t want a hospital to take away my power. I didn’t want to risk someone cutting me open and taking the baby out that way.”
While midwife deliveries typically take place in the hospital, Ms. Kurkova is among those who have given birth at home.
“A home birth is more relaxed,” said Miriam Schwarzschild, a home midwife for 25 years who lives in Brooklyn. “I wash my hands, listen to the baby’s heartbeat, take the mother’s vital signs and that’s it. There are no routines. You step outside the bureaucracy at home.”
A big selling point for midwives — both at home and in the hospital — is that, barring medical complications, the baby is not separated from the mother after the birth.
Another at-home advocate is Ms. Bündchen, who gave birth in 2010 to her son, Benjamin, in her Boston penthouse.
“We say Gisele delivered her own baby but I was in attendance,” said Deborah Allen, a midwife in Cambridge, Mass., who, along with Mayra Calvette, a Brazilian midwife, was present at the birth. “Obviously, privacy is of the utmost importance. You are completely exposed. You need to be in a place where you feel comfortable to do that. Gisele was extremely prepared.”
But not everyone is ready to go that route.
When Esther Haynes, deputy editor at Lucky Magazine, decided to go to a midwife, she quickly rejected an at-home birth. “This is New York, and if there was an emergency, I didn’t want my story being, ‘I called 911 and the ambulance took 45 minutes because of traffic!’ ” Ms. Haynes said.
“Also my apartment is kind of cluttered,” she added. “I hated the thought of going into labor thinking, I wish I’d thrown out more magazines.”