The Knitting Midwife.
By Libby Jonson
I am told there is a long history linking knitting with births and many stories of midwives quietly knitting while keeping a mindful eye on labouring mothers. I’m not a midwife but I’m a mother and a knitter and, although none of my midwives knitted at any of my four births, I love this idea and everything it evokes.
Michel Odent, Obstetrician, is an advocate for midwives knitting while women labour.
My Grandmother taught me to knit when I was a small child and I started sewing little projects a short while later. I remember my childhood and teenage years as a long happy creative adventure. Like my mother, I was a prolific maker and like my father I was a fearless crafter, trying my hand at anything and everything. During my twenties sewing took over as my craft of choice but in my early thirties, with the birth of my first baby, I picked up my knitting needles again and I still haven’t put them down, thirteen years later.
Knitting and small children go together in a way that nothing else does. My kids don’t seem to notice me knitting. They can potter, play and be happily engaged for a long time when I’m sitting nearby and knitting. Unlike with sewing, reading, using a computer or smart phone, when I knit I think they feel as if I am quietly present and this is reassuring for them, so they can get on with their business of playing. My eyes aren’t fixed on something else, my mind isn’t consumed elsewhere, and I can still chat and smile and nod when I need to without give the impression I’m being interrupted or biding time before I get on with the next chore. Knitting has been a wonderful addition to my mothering.
I imagine that all of these qualities apply equally to midwives attending a birth as they do to me and my children. In fact, I wonder if a bit of knitting in the background might not have soothed my nerves and uncertainty at how long my first birth seemed to be taking and might not have allowed me to get on with my business quietly and privately (as I’d learnt I prefer to do) when I was labouring with my fourth.
Knitting is a gentle, rhythmic activity that quietens and calms the knitter and in turn, those around her and this is just what we need when we’re delivering our babies. Like many, I had a long labour with my first baby. I was conscious of the clock and at the back of my mind harboured the thought that I was taking too long and inconveniencing everyone, despite their reassurances otherwise. A knitter subconsciously sends a lot of messages to those around her, particularly the kinds of messages I needed that first time. A knitter is not in a rush. The click clack of her needles tells us “Don’t worry, I don’t need to be anywhere else.” It also tells us “I have all the time in the world, you do what you need to do”. A knitting midwife has the special ability to say even more. When she sits and knits as we labour, we hear “everything is ok” and “you’re doing fine” and “this is normal”.
I was lucky to experience a truly wonderful birth with my third baby. My labour was slow to get into a regular rhythm but once it did it was speedy, relaxed and without pain. My daughter was born unexpectedly but easily, about 15 minutes before the midwife arrived. Several years later, when I had my fourth baby, I experienced very mixed feelings. While on the one hand I was keen for the midwives to be present, on the other, I really wanted everyone to go away. For a long time I lay in the bath upstairs on my own. Downstairs I could hear my husband making cups of tea and happy chit chat while the midwives sat waiting. When I finally emerged and came down to the warm kitchen, I felt everyone’s eyes on me. I couldn’t articulate it but while I wanted their presence, I didn’t want an audience.
Knitting would have worked wonders in that situation. I didn’t feel like I needed help or encouragement, I just wanted to know someone was there. A knitting midwife can sit quietly and be present without obviously watching. As she knits row after row, she is reassuringly present and occupied but she isn’t completely distracted. I find it truly wonderful and amazing how this simple, ancient activity can be so powerful, and I although I am biased and want everyone to give knitting a go, I encourage midwives to pick up their needles first.
So, what is the best thing to knit if you’re sitting with a labouring woman? I’d go for something small and not too taxing. I think a smaller item tells the mother “I’m available” and a simple knit makes it easier to knit without referring to a pattern and also to glance up from your knitting and put it down mid-row. Socks, hats, and simple shawls are great “out and about” knitting. They fit into tiny spaces and can be made on circular needles thereby eliminating the possibility of needles clunking to the floor and rolling between floorboards! Larger garments knitted in pieces would also work but I wonder if a huge jumper knitted in one piece is more likely to suggest that you already have a lot on your plate and you’re not as available.
The idea of knitting a little bonnet or booties for the baby that’s to be born is a rather lovely one. It may even increase feelings of trust between the midwife and the parents. There are lots of patterns around, take a look at www.ravelry.com if you’re stuck for ideas. I guess the main thing is to have lots of wool and perhaps a spare set of needles at hand so there’s always something to knit!
Libby Jonson is a passionate knitter and knitting pattern designer who lives in rural New Zealand with her husband and four small children. You can find her at www.trulymyrtle.com