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What it’s like to be a midwife

  • Health and Wellness
  • School of Nursing

Before Ali Barrett attended her first birth as a Pitt midwifery student, she recorded a video on her phone — a testament she planned to look back on later in her career. In the recording, she said, “I’m feeling emotional. I am thinking about everything that has built up to now, and I am never going to have this have a first birth again.”

Barrett was among the first students to graduate from Pitt’s Nurse-Midwife major offered in the School of Nursing’s Doctor of Nursing Practice program.

Since its founding in 2016, students have attended 182 births and counting.

The midwife track was born of necessity, said Nancy Niemczyk, assistant professor in the School of Nursing and Nurse-Midwife Program director.

“Hiring new midwives in Southwestern Pennsylvania would take an average of a year,” she said. “We knew we needed to invest in a program in Pittsburgh to better supply the region.”

The School of Nursing’s program is the only Doctor of Nursing Practice midwifery program in Pennsylvania. Six students are currently enrolled, and five students have graduated.

In February 2022, the program major reached a milestone when it attained full accreditation, making it eligible for federal-funded student scholarships and allowing for greater enrollment capacity.

To commemorate the program's recent achievement and in honor of Mother’s Day, Pittwire asked students and recent graduates to share stories of memorable births they’ve attended, why they feel called to be a midwife and what they wish more people knew about their field.

On the choice to become a midwife

“When I was an undergraduate nursing student in a clinical rotation, I observed a birth for the first time, and it was magical. I saw an entire support team helping a woman give birth — from her husband spooning her and whispering encouragement in her ear to a nurse applying warm compresses to soothe her. Being in the room, watching that happen, I just sobbed, of course. Because, why wouldn’t you? And at that moment, I decided that I could be that midwife. I can be the one who’s talking a mother down, and I can be the one guiding and coaching her partner to support her.”

— Abigail Slocum, (NURS ’20G)

“In the years following my graduation from nursing school, advocating for birthing people and reproductive and sexual health became increasingly important to me. I began to do more research about what nurse-midwives do and their philosophy of care. Something that resonated with me is the distinction midwives make between midwifery care and usual obstetrical or gynecological care. Midwives approach pregnancy, childbirth, menses and menopause as normal events throughout someone’s lifetime rather than a medical condition that needs treatment. I started to read more about the positive impact nurse-midwives can have on perinatal outcomes and experiences of pregnancy, and I became inspired to begin the process of becoming a nurse-midwife myself.”

— Ellen Christy, current student

On memorable moments working as a midwife

“One of my best friends, who I’ve known since junior high, asked me to be her midwife. It was an incredible experience supporting someone I’m so close with through their pregnancy journey.  I’m grateful that I was able to do that for someone I love — there is a deep trust and connection there. She tells everyone the story of me encouraging her to keep pushing when she wanted to give up. I told her, ‘You are going to have your baby right now.’ She is amazed that I knew she could do it even when she didn't think she was capable.”

— Ali Barrett, (NURS ’20G)

The School of Nursing’s program is the only Doctor of Nursing Practice midwifery program in Pennsylvania.

“The most memorable birth experience I have had to date was my first delivery for a client who was having a natural childbirth. This delivery, in particular, was for a woman who was in her first pregnancy and had been laboring for around 24 hours. When it came time for her to deliver, it was unlike any other birth I had attended before. She was up, changing positions, making noise and listening to her body tell her what would come next. It was incredible. I was nervous and maybe a little startled at first, having never been in the presence of someone being so entirely raw and unfiltered. The delivery went completely smoothly, and she was thrilled, albeit exhausted. I learned from this delivery that, most of the time, my role as a midwife would be to facilitate people through birth rather than to decide how it is going to happen. Birth is a normal process, and the body knows how to do it.”

— Ellen Christy

On lessons learned

“As a student midwife, I began working at The Midwife Center, a freestanding facility [in Pittsburgh] with less rigid visitation policies than hospitals. At the center, before the pandemic, we allowed kids to be present when their parent was giving birth.

“To be honest, I thought having children in the birthing room would be a complete disaster, but it was delightful most of the time. Some kids are really curious about their new sibling, and it was sweet to witness them seeing their family’s new baby for the first time. That experience taught me that birth could be a regular life event even for small kids, and it feels like family-centered care when a toddler is running around the hallways.”

— Jessie Holmquist, (NURS ’19G)

“Being a Nurse-Midwife student at Pitt taught me that you're never done learning, and there’s always something else to be gained. For the rest of our careers, we should be trying to improve and grow and learn and be the best provider we can be.”

— Abigail Slocum

On celebrating after attending a birth for the first time

“After my first time attending a birth, I gave the parents a Pitt-branded onesie from my advisor and me. Later, after my shift, I ate ice cream for breakfast when I returned home.”

— Ellen Christy

“I was ecstatic. I told everyone I knew about my experience. My friends heard all about it.”

— Abigail Slocum

On the power of midwives

“Midwives do more than just labor and delivery; they are also trained in gynecological and primary health care. A midwife can perform annual gynecological exams, write prescriptions, place IUDs and implant contraception devices and perform Pap smears and STI testing. Midwifery care focuses on promoting a partnership between midwives and their clients while delivering individualized care that supports holistic health and well-being.”

— Ellen Christy


— Nichole Faina