Twelve years ago, Jodilyn Owen was invited by her sister-in-law to her nephew’s birth as a “pseudo-doula” to boss her older brother around.
“The goal was to help him be involved in the way that he could,” she said. “I fell in love with being on that end of the bed, so to speak.”
She didn’t know that a doula was an actual job until her husband, Rabbi Benjy Owen, heard a story on NPR.
“He called me to tell me that people get paid for this thing I was running all over the neighborhood doing,” she said.
Owen is now phasing out her doula services in order to devote her time to midwifery and running the Essential Birth and Family Center, which she opened earlier this year in Seattle’s Seward Park neighborhood.
And her book, “The Essential Homebirth Guide” (Simon and Schuster, 2012) co-authored with colleague Jane Drichta, has already sold out of its first printing and holds a five-star rating on Amazon.
“Women read it and go to bed happy,” Owen said of the response. “It’s not about fear.”
Owen began training as a midwife with the Ancient Art Midwifery Institute in 2007.
“I got exhausted from witnessing everything and being able to do nothing,” she said. “What I was seeing was a lot of information being pumped into people and a lot of decisions being made without really true, informed consent on behalf of parents, instead of empowering them to use their own knowledge about themselves and their babies to move forward in their pregnancy and birth process.”
Her training, which included obstetrical emergencies and understanding infant personalities, took her to the impoverished South Pacific island of Vanuatu, where she gained the “muscle memory” to deal with newborn resuscitation and other life-threatening situations.
But once Owen was nationally certified as a midwife, she hit a wall. Licensure in Washington State is a highly bureaucratic, slow process, even though midwifery care saves the state millions of dollars per budget cycle, she explained.
So she set out to accomplish her other goal.
“I’ve always had this dream of creating a community gathering place for mothers and babies and families,” she said.
The Essential Birth and Family Center is the result of hundreds of hours of conversations with South End healthcare professionals. The small building located next to the Seattle Kollel rents space to practitioners offering acupuncture, massage, lactation support, nutritional counseling, doula care, and craniosacral therapy, as well as prenatal classes, parent support groups, infant and child CPR, babysitting classes, and more. Girl Sense, which the center developed and helps girls 8-9 years old channel self-awareness and manage stress, has become so popular it’s being introduced in Israel, Uganda, and other parts of the U.S. this year.
In addition, Owen feels strongly about empowering immigrant and minority communities in Rainier Valley.
“Midwifery is a white profession,” Owen explained.
It’s not easy for new immigrant midwives, who possibly serviced their entire communities back in Ethiopia or Somalia, to navigate the licensure or healthcare systems here.
“Cultural competency matters in birth,” Owen said. For new immigrants, “every time they turn around, something crazy is in front of them.”
After a long wait and some pressure on the system, Owen did receive her license to practice midwifery last fall. Now one of her activities is attending births with an unlicensed immigrant midwife from Ethiopia, so the midwife can still serve her community in some way. She’s also helping the woman obtain her license.
“They’re still the women that women bring their babies to,” said Owen. “Anything I can do to grow the midwifery community, I’m really into.”
Yet another thing Owen has spearheaded to grow midwifery care is a partnership with Swedish Hospital. Women who want fewer tests, longer prenatal sessions (up to an hour), whole-body care, and perhaps a shorter drive from their South End locations — but still prefer a hospital birth — can receive midwifery prenatal care through the center. They meet with physicians once per trimester and develop a relationship with the hospital staff.
“You’re not just a woman in a hospital gown,” said Owen. “You’re somebody that they know…. It’s old school obstetrics.”
There is a cost savings as well for the expecting parents and their insurance companies. Hospital birth costs vary — according to a GroupHealth representative, a vaginal birth with no interventions costs $15,780 and a cesarean with a three-day stay, prescriptions and labs bills at $24,532 — so the hospital doesn’t necessarily lose anything by relinquishing prenatal care. Homebirths and birth-center births can often cost less than $3,000, with prenatal care included.
“I’ve always believed women are safest where they feel safest,” Owen said. “It’s about meeting women where they’re at.”
In spite of the excitement around bringing life into the world and creating a network of natural birth supporters, Owen’s personal life has presented challenges to her work. A few years ago, she lost one of her own children to cancer.
“We really trust in mothers and babies and birth,” she reflected. “It works. People get pregnant and they stay pregnant and their babies usually live. That’s a very fundamental part of midwifery practice. So for me, coming into Sam’s illness was very shocking because it was the first time… ‘Oh, it doesn’t always work.’
“If it doesn’t always work — and will it ever work, and how can I trust that process again? — was part of my healing.”
Owen took a year off from midwifery school to grieve with her family.
“You just have to wake up and see it’s a new day one time. And then you do it again. And before you know it, time has gone by,” she said. “We have this question, what will we do with this day? We would look at each day with this question.”
Owen’s work with babies and mothers helped her through the grieving process and reemerged as her calling.
“From that first prenatal visit and that first birth, I knew, I miss this, and this is something that feeds my soul,” she said. “I want to be living, even with this tremendous loss in our lives. The way for me to do that was to follow my passion. I really wanted to show my kids that we must live. We must live.”
Owen’s lifelong connection to Seattle’s Jewish community also informs her work. She reflected on a recent trip to Rhodes, Greece, with her family.
“I saw a tombstone for a woman who was taken away by the Nazis and on her stone all of her children are listed by name and age on the day they were taken. There were six children — the youngest of which was only one week old. It was standing there that I felt my Jewish connection to what it means to usher in and protect life,” she said.
“At a week, everything is so tender and new. That woman’s life and death woke something up in me about the important role of the midwife in our community, and it is an honor to fulfill that role.”