Creating a Village
Story and photos by Jessica J. Savage
The energy level in the studio lobby rises as expectant couples spill into the waiting area following their weekly childbirth class and begin to mingle with the mothers and toddlers waiting to attend an herb class. Obviously well-acquainted friends, the young mothers and fathers quickly catch up with each other's lives, while their children interact with their playmates.
Since moving into a former dance studio at 614 E. Lohman in Las Cruces earlier this year, the Art of Birth and Wellness Center at Living Tree has expanded its offerings and acquired non-profit status to apply for grants and accept donations. The Living Tree Benefit Wine Festival on Saturday, May 6, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., at Blue Teal Winery in Mesilla, will be one of the center's first major efforts at creating more public awareness of their offerings and raising needed funding.
"The whole idea is to make this a health and wellness center," says center midwife Tawnya Bass.
What they've actually done is create a social networking center for like-minded parents who provide each other with support.
"I didn't know a lot of new moms before," says Becca Thorton, mother of 15-month-old Michael and a center client. "I felt like I was parenting in a vacuum." Being away from her family, Thorton found the social group she needed at the center. "I'm absolutely not alone," she says. "I feel very supported."
According to groups like Prevent Child Abuse America (PCAA) and Healthy Families America, social isolation is a proven risk factor for child abuse. "Isolation leads to low tolerance levels," Bass says, "whether it's a colicky infant or an unruly 14-year-old."
Children in the first two years of life are most at risk for physical abuse and neglect, according to PCAA, so programs that begin working with parents right after birth are likely to be the most successful.
The dozen midwives currently associated with the Art of Birth and Wellness Center may not have deliberately set out to create a child-abuse prevention program—yet many elements follow the PCAA's recommendations: begin working with parents before their babies arrive, provide positive parenting practices, home visits and connect parents with others.
What the center midwives are aware of is the high poverty level in Southwest New Mexico, and the high rate of very young parents. "Obviously, being a parent is not easy; there's no instruction manual," Bass says. "We live in a community with young parents, teen parents. There are obstacles for parents to open up and meet other parents."
Overcoming those obstacles by providing health-care services, dance and exercise classes, childbirth classes and other parental education classes at a low cost or sliding scale is what Art of Birth and Wellness is all about. The center also provides meeting space to two other educational-support groups aimed at young families: La Leche League of Las Cruces for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, and the local chapter of Attachment Parenting International. Both groups meet monthly at the center.
Such classes help parents to network and make friends, while learning alternative parenting choices besides hitting, Bass says—promoting positive reinforcement and reward systems. Facilitators help parents understand their child's developmental level at each age, which helps ward off frustration from having higher expectations of a child than he or she is capable of. Parents also learn anger management and how to deal with their own emotions. Says Bass, "There are different strategies for different kids, who may change in one family from child to child. You have to adjust to the child. One child may be obstinate, while another is shy."
But it's not enough just to provide women's reproductive health care, educate them about their bodies, and offer dance and physical fitness classes. It has to be done at a price anyone can afford.
According to state health department statistics, 70 percent of the community is at or below the poverty line, says Senior Midwife Kamy Shaw. "People have been coming to us the last 10 years, and they're not happy with their Medicaid options. They have no insurance and no money to pay doctors," she says. The midwives have been providing health care for donations and on a sliding-scale basis. Shaw cites one pregnant woman lacking health insurance who hadn't been getting prenatal care; when she came to the center's attention, she was seen the next day.
These same patients can't afford the fees charged at health clubs for membership or classes. "They're strapped," Shaw says. "They don't have money for a fun fitness class." So clients can take a class for $3 to $5 on a sliding scale or donation if that's all they have. "Nobody will be turned away."
Salaries of the midwives at the center are also at or below the poverty level, yet they've still managed to donate to some third-world countries and other organizations. "We don't want to get rich," Shaw says. "Every dime goes to help support other women and children and families who need it more than we do."
Other than the Yellow Pages and a presence on the Internet (www.birthandwellness.com), clients find their way to Art of Birth and Wellness through word-of-mouth. "When people like the care, they'll come," Shaw says. They've come from as far away as Colorado, Nevada and Montana.
It's the center's focus on the whole person—body, mind and spirit—and its blend of Western and alternative medical practices that draw clients, Shaw theorizes. "We care about the women and their lives," she adds.
Care focuses on finding the root cause of illness, which may be an emotional issue causing a physical imbalance, and on empowering women to take control of their own health. All the midwives are trained in sexual-abuse advocacy, as well as "in every sexual relationship known to man," Shaw says.
"So many women have an abuse history," she adds. "They need to have time."
So clients will feel comfortable talking about intimate details of their personal lives, every medical appointment begins with a 30-minute conversation before the patient even takes her clothes off. Every client is encouraged to heal and pursue a life of emotional availability. "They need to feel a part of the decision of their care plan," Shaw says, "rather than dictating it to them. Whether they achieve it or not, they won't feel victimized and bossed." Therapies used to this end include meditation, Reiki, touch therapy and creative movement.
Shaw also is an advocate for simplifying health care and making it easily accessible. "Every person that answers the phone is a midwife," she says. "Lots of things can easily be answered without a $20 co-pay. Patients can come into the center and get support when they're feeling stressed out and having a 'bad mom day.' Single parents can learn to work and be a parent." Patients with newborns who can't get to the center can receive a home visit from a midwife for a well-baby check.
Through the doorway of the first entrance off the center's lobby are the hardwood floors of a former dance studio—the perfect setting for joyful, energetic movement with plenty of wiggle room for gyrating toddlers, leaping youngsters and their swaying mothers.
"Fitness in our culture has become competitive," says Shaw, whereas in every other culture in the world creative movement is celebrated by everyone regardless of age or fitness level. "It's for everyone—to celebrate themselves."
Offerings include dance fitness classes in salsa, hip-hop and cardio-techno that will appeal to children but are also for adults, plus yoga classes.
The studio space is also used for the educational classes, which include sibling preparation, baby massage and CPR, childbirth preparation, lactation, labor support and techniques, meditation and relaxation, herbs, aromatherapy and homeopathic therapies. The benefits of sibling classes for children about to share their parents with a new baby are reduction in jealousy and anger, as the classes help kids to transition and prepare to become big brothers and sisters. Other topics are available upon request such as awareness of women's reproductive cycle from the onset of menstruation to menopause, natural family planning and various aspects of parenting.
Dance, exercise and meditation classes are offered for $4 each or for those interested in donating to the center $50 will provide you with four free classes and a tax-deductible receipt. Specialty classes range from $125 for an eight-week Bradley childbirth preparation class, $75 for Touch Therapy and Reiki, $35 for baby massage and CPR, to $15 and $10 for classes such as sibling preparation or nutrition in pregnancy. Instructors are certified by the Aerobic and Fitness Association of America.
After a long day caring for women and their infants, midwives still find time to care for each other. In fact, they spend the whole day mentoring each other and improving their skills. Through an informal system the center has been a venue where midwives could train and find positions for apprenticeship in foreign countries. Starting in June the center will begin sessions of the Living Tree College of Midwifery that will lead to becoming a Certified Professional Midwife.
"We're reaching out globally," Shaw says, noting that midwives have been sent to internships in Canada, the Philippines, Indonesia and Africa.
Students of the college will not only gain practical experience in clinical and home birth situations, but will also study an intense midwife academic curriculum. To become a midwife, a student must not only pass an exam, but also log in a certain number of exams involving pregnant women and their babies, as well as hours spent in practicum.
Clients of the center have warm regards for Kamy Shaw, the other midwives and their work. "They're open-minded and non-judgmental," says father Lenny Beltran as he minds the toddlers while their mothers attend an herb class. Although it took a little while to warm up to the staff after his wife got involved through a breastfeeding class, he says he's now more comfortable talking about personal things.
"I feel very blessed," says his wife Renee. The couple have made friends with many like-minded people they met at the center. "It's like that saying, 'It takes a village.' Kamy nurtures that."
"It's my relationship with Kamy," agrees Lori Cleveland, the center's webmaster as well as a client. "I've never had that with another care provider."
All of the services offered at Art of Birth and Wellness together reduce child abuse and health problems, and create informed, empowered and confident parents, Shaw says. "I feel the reward of my work," she says. "I take pride in it."
As a healer working with her clients' bodies, minds and spirits, Shaw says it is she who has been inspired by them. "They're my heroes—they felt fear and yet can do anything. I've met some incredible women.
"One birth at a time," she adds, "we're saving the world."
Frequent contributor Jessica Savage lives in Las Cruces.