Nurse midwife Jennifer Whalen honors her patients’ choices

Welcoming Baby. Sometimes Jennifer Whalen finds herself crawling into the hospital bed, her hands underneath an expectant mother in labor, waiting to catch a baby about to be born. As a nurse midwife, she’s literally hands-on. After nearly 20 years of bringing new life into the world, she believes in honoring her patients’ wishes. “After all,” she says, “they’re the ones doing the hard work, and they deserve it.” Some women want painkillers, while others prefer a natural birth. Some want to have their babies in a bathtub, and others would rather have a bed. Whatever they prefer, she encourages future mothers to be comfortable having their babies in the position that feels most natural. Janee Valduga had her third child facing a headboard on her elbows and knees — a position called “child pose.” I was invited to listen in when Janee brought her fourth baby to Whalen’s Englewood office for his six-week check-up. Tiny Marco Valduga may have entered the world with his mother in a squat, like a chicken laying an egg, but Janee’s leg muscles wouldn’t hold out: “They started cramping like crazy after about a half hour.” These positions may sound strange at first, but, Whalen explains, ”They are natural. Women have babies on their backs because that’s what we’re used to. That’s what we see on television. And with 90 percent of women having epidurals, there’s no way they could support themselves with their legs.”

The typical position with feet in stirrups felt unnatural to Janee. “I wasn’t comfortable lying on my back. That’s what I love about midwives. If I wanted to have my babies standing on my head, they’d say, ‘It’s not really gonna work, but go for it!’ They listen,” she says. “Midwifery is about choices,” says Jenn Whalen. “It’s about having time and space to grow and creating a family every time. Today only 10 percent of mothers use midwives. But that’s only been the trend for the past hundred years. Before that, almost everyone used midwives.” Many modern-era nurse midwives go through years of schooling before they are qualified to treat women’s health issues. Some of them work side-by-side with obstetricians and gynecologists in the same office; some have their own practices and use the doctors on an on-call basis; others birth babies out of peoples’ homes. Whalen is one of a three-woman practice called the Midwifery Group, which operates out of Swedish Hospital. She has one undergraduate degree in exercise physiology and three graduate degrees, including a post-doctoral master’s. But still there is a misconception that midwives are behind the times. “People think we deliver babies out of corn cribs! We’ll arrive on the maternity ward, and some nurses say, ‘OK, what are we going to do today? Are we throwing cornmeal and doing Indian dances?’ Others would like for my patients to get an epidural and shut up and mind their manners. It’s a control issue,” she says.

roleModel2And that is exactly why healthy moms like Janee say they choose to go with a midwife instead of an OB/Gyn. To deal with the pain of childbirth, Janee used a method of self-relaxation called hypnobirthing. “I had my 10-pound-4-ounce baby girl all natural. There was no fear for me. I embraced it. Natural birth is very empowering,” she explains. It wasn’t Whalen’s original plan to be a midwife. After getting an exercise physiology degree at Arizona State University, she was floundering. Twenty-three years old and fresh out of school, she did not enjoy her job because everyone was “healthy and whining about everything.” Searching for a different career path, she thought about being a physician, so she took and passed her MCATS. But even that career choice wasn’t a good fit. It wasn’t until she witnessed the birth of a good friend’s baby, which was attended by a midwife, that she got her calling. She knew that midwifery was where it was at for her. Whalen is convinced we pick our time to be born. She remembers that one of her babies chose an outlandish place to meet her family for the first time: an obscure off-ramp on I-70 near Idaho Springs. That day, the highway was crammed with skiers coming home from the mountains. When the father called Whalen to tell her his wife was in labor, he was calm. She recalls, “He had a birthing kit. I told him he had three choices: either drive down to the hospital, call the State Patrol or just have your baby and call me afterward. He got a trash bag under his wife, and the baby came! With her two sisters in the back seat.” The family met Whalen with the older girls screaming, “Jenn! Our sister is here!”

A collage of baby pictures crowds a bulletin board above Whalen’s desk. She introduces them: “This one’s Jude. This is Jovia. Isn’t she sweet? And Mr. Will. His parents are pregnant again. I delivered him two years ago, and now he comes in with them for their visits. He’s got crazy black hair, and he wears sunglasses all of the time.” Whalen says there is a difference between a midwife with a master’s degree or a doctorate in nursing and a person with a traditional medical degree. She says it’s how pregnancy is regarded: One honors the condition as a normal process, and the other sees it as an illness. With an average of 10 births a month, she knows her patients, taking an active role in every case. Understanding the female psyche gives her a deep empathy for the particular feelings that can arise with childbirth. Whalen says she personally walks every patient through the process before and after the baby comes. For example, as she observes, ”You never know when a cloud’s gonna drop in.” She sees postpartum depression as a valid condition: “Going through the developmental phases of being a mother is huge! You’ve just added to your family, you’ve got laundry piling up exponentially. Your hormones are raging. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed. We go through a lot of tissues in this office.”

Having a midwife birth your baby isn’t for everyone. Whalen says women who are considered high risk should see an M.D. She likes operating her practice out of a hospital because if there is a problem that will need intervention, such as forceps, she has a doctor who is on call. If that happens, she goes from being the primary birthing person to what she calls “first assist” to the physician. Contrary to popular belief, Whalen does give epidurals for women who request them, although most of her patients do not like to use them. She says her office handles insurance just like any other medical practice, and she takes Medicaid. Having a baby with Whalen or one of her two partners costs about the same amount as it does with an obstetrician. In the visiting room at the Midwifery Group, Whalen says goodbye to tiny Marco Valduga and his mom. We walk past a television monitor on top of which is a CD with a handwritten title, Baby Yoga. This space is available if anyone wants to come back and stretch. Janee loves what she calls the “organic” approach in Whalen’s office. She wishes more women knew about the choice of midwifery. There is no advertising.

Most of the clients with Whalen’s group hear about her and her partners through word of mouth. “Women don’t give themselves enough credit. In our society, they do what they think is expected of them. My whole thing is, there’s another way. You might be surprised at what you can do!” she laughs. “Women have been having natural birth with midwives for thousands of years. That’s how we all got here.”

Photography by KIMBERLY DAWN

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