‘With woman’ – the essence of Midwifery

Sarah O'Donoghue profile


Written by Sarah O’Donoghue, UTS Bachelor of Midwifery student



1a. the permanent as contrasted with the accidental element of being

(Merriam Webster)

Being a Midwifery student is tough. It requires courage, determination, trust and above all passion. As I near the end of my degree, I find myself coming back to my why. Why am I still studying midwifery? What do I love about it and what do I hope to achieve? For me, the answer was and always has been simple. But without giving away my ‘why’, I’d like to take you through my journey of finding it.

Translated from Middle English the word ‘midwife’ means ‘with woman’. But what exactly does this mean? Is it a simplification of the profession, or conversely does it celebrate the very essence of midwifery? To answer this question and find my ‘why’ along the way, it is first essential to examine the historic origins of midwifery.

Midwifery is indeed an ancient profession. Although the origins of medieval midwifery are difficult to trace, there is evidence in ancient literature and art that midwives have been present at birth for centuries. In seventeenth century England for example, women would gather together for labour and birth, bringing food and drink for sustenance throughout (Leap & Hunter 2016).

The midwife would work with the women to support the birthing woman and it was very normal for midwives to work through physical problems in labour by soothing the mother’s emotional and primal needs. Compassion, nourishment and support were primary to midwifery care alongside clinical skills.

Artwork by Amanda Greavette
Artwork by: Amanda Greavette (Birth Project Gallery)

Similar ways of being ‘midwife’ are seen through the work of Ina May Gaskin in her book Spiritual Midwifery. She speaks of ‘inhibition’ blocking birthing energy and emphasises that each woman will need tailored individual care to remove these blocks. She talks about cultivating a space of love and support for the birthing woman and tells amazing stories of women having transformative births through letting go of inhibition.

This harmony between compassionate, empathetic, informed support and sound clinical knowledge is – I believe- the essence of midwifery. It is truly being ‘with woman’. In a world where birth dances in the ‘grey area’ it can be easy to forget how to truly be ‘with woman’. It is about taking a moment to stop and listen to the wisdom of our predecessors. To think carefully about the individual women’s needs, fears and inhibitions, and to respond accordingly. To think beyond the norm, returning to this individual woman in this specific moment. How can I help? What skills do I have to ‘hold the space’ for this woman?

As a midwifery student, I am lucky enough to cultivate relationships through pregnancy and beyond. Often, we know the woman’s past, we know her history, and vitally we know that this is all connected to the care we must provide. Particularly in first year when clinical skills are not fully developed, we have this intent focus on being ‘with woman’. Being completely present. Listening to her labour sounds and watching her movements, offering support and reassurance if needed.

Perhaps most importantly, it is about reminding the woman of her true inner strength and resilience. Watching her birth from woman to mother as we are born from student to midwife.

Let’s invite the spirit of nurturing back to the birthing space. Let’s think about the art of being ‘with woman’ because for me, that is what it is all about. Cultivating relationships. Working holistically. Listening to the woman and tailoring my care. Re-connecting to the essence of midwifery – the art of being ‘with woman’.

Find out more about Midwifery


Leap, N. &  Hunter, B. 2016, Supporting Women for Labour and Birth: A Thoughtful Guide, Routledge, Abingdon.

Gaskin, I. M. 2002, Spiritual Midwifery, 4th edn, Book Publishing Company, Summertown.

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