Being a midwifery apprentice can take on many guises. Of course, it can be a wondrous and supportive experience. However, for too many, it can be a degrading and even humiliating moment in time. Depending on the community you find yourself in, the midwife you find yourself working with, the environment of birth in your community... all can have a distinct effect on the tone and vibe of your learning world. Talking with apprentices around the US and Canada, I have heard whispers of sadness, have “virtually” wiped tears, and listened to tales of "I could never practice midwifery the way she does!" over and over.
Women moving into an apprenticeship crave a great relationship filled with learning and understand the expectation of very hard work. Many senior midwives are able to fill their role as mentor lovingly and gracefully. Some apprentices never know that others midwife-hop to try and find a better fit. I applaud those that have found the "right" situation early on (or even on the first try!). Please remember, however, that not all are so lucky and when you hear of a woman going to a senior midwife asking to apprentice because she wasn’t a "good fit" with someone else, she might have really come from crap and just doesn't want to say as much. There is much to be said about discretion.
Apprenticeship in many communities is based on servitude. The book Becoming a Midwife fostered this (the book is out of print, but often used) by saying the potential apprentice in the courting phase should baby sit for the midwife, do her bills, cook for her, do her filing, etc. As she is accepted into an apprenticeship, that servitude accelerates into spending hours and hours a week in the midwife's office, attending prenatals, being the first at a birth and the last to leave postpartum, answering client questions over the phone, teaching childbirth classes and more. All of these are the general standard "requirements" for an apprentice.
When the relationship is reciprocal, and respectful, terrific! But, when the relationship is lopsided, it is a set-up for resentment and anger.
The mentor midwife typically would be responsible for assigning educational tasks, researching situations, answering questions, reviewing prenatals, reviewing/de-compressing after births, being supportive of difficulties, helping the apprentice work through relationship challenges, helping her to find the appropriate equipment, helping her to find training programs to augment her education, loaning her books, offering opportunities for her to learn from other midwives, doulas, lactation experts, etc.
Too many apprentice relationships forego the second half of the equation. And if the apprentice is not aware that there is another way of doing things, she can feel she is selfish for asking for anything. Some midwives, in their martyr space already, sigh and groan about being asked anything, even simple requests such as feedback from a recent birth experience. More offensively, in some communities, apprentices are being asked to pay for their education on top of augmented educational requirements for licensure.
I feel it is imperative for potential apprentices to keep their feet firmly planted in cement. Do not allow anyone, even the Great and Mighty Midwife, to make you feel badly about anything you ask for (or about) or need. Stay centered and believe in your Self as you know that you deserve respect, kindness, patience, and even compensation (eventually). If the mentor midwife doesn't want to offer an educational component, limit your access to the midwife. Some midwives feel that any birth talk is an educational component - I know several of these types of midwives and they honestly, truly, really feel that your working your buttocks off in the office and at births is the cost for the privilege of attending a homebirth (or birth center birth). That is inequitable. Don't doubt that.
No woman ever should be belittled, made to feel guilty, or yelled at either in private or at a birth. Communication skills are a hallmark of midwifery and if the mentor is unable to control herself with an apprentice, the apprentice really needs to reconsider where she wants to be. Is it worth your self-esteem or dignity to be a midwife via this avenue? How much does a person need to endure to meet a goal?
None of this speaks about a midwife that does things with and to a client that we might find unethical or even dangerous. Over the years, I have witnessed and even participated in activities I would never do today. I justify it now that I was able to see things/do things/learn things I wouldn't do in a million years... unless a mother or baby was dying in my hands. I have publicly and prayerfully apologized to the women I have hurt or witnessed being hurt and vowed to never operate in a space of uninformed consent again. As an apprentice, I had to find a place of understanding that women chose their midwife for a reason. However, if clients asked me, as an apprentice/student, my opinion on an issue, I would answer honestly and from my own reality. That got me in trouble more than once. As a senior midwife now, I would love to have an apprentice share her perception with clients! Her experiences, thoughts and ideas are all valuable and treasured. Learning through observation is crucial, yes. But, interaction is equally important.
Those of us with years under our belts, in life, not just birth, know that a certain amount of difficulty or challenge is necessary to get what we want in life. We take classes in school that have nothing to do with anything we need in life. We endure bosses who sign our paychecks. We even live in families where depression, addiction, or abuse reside because the benefits outweigh the risks of leaving. Sitting in an apprenticeship that is not healthy is no different. Weighing what you are willing to put up with before it begins and then re-evaluating as it goes along will go a long way towards keeping your sanity.
If the uncomfortable feelings tip the scales towards sadness and illness along with a distinct desire to not be with the mentor midwife, looking again at what you need is absolutely necessary.
Many of us who lived in a servitude-based apprenticeship have chosen a different way of taking on apprentices. We do not ask apprentices to do anything more than we are willing to do. We never ask an apprentice to go to a birth before us or leave after us. We never ask them to do the postpartum visits instead of us. We never send them to do PKU/Newborn screenings instead of us. We pay apprentices after 6 months' time. We always review prenatals and births. We strive for patience and kindness... nothing less than what we offer clients.
Experiencing several styles over the years has helped me to verbalize what others simply "feel" and don't have all the words for. I hope that this short piece helps others to find a great and wonderful fit with the mentor of your dreams!