Dr. Penny Simkin speaking at Bastyr University’s graduation ceremony
Penny Simkin has prepared more than 10,000 people for the life-changing experience of childbirth. She has physically held, encouraged, squeezed, informed, inspired and wiped the brow of nearly 800 women as they've brought their babies into the world. And, as a "mother" of the birth doula movement that began here in Seattle in the 1990s, Simkin has trained nearly 5,000 women – and a few men – in the art of mothering the laboring mother.
"Penny's name is synonymous with the effort to improve women's experience of childbirth," says Annie Kennedy, director of Bastyr University's Simkin Center for Allied Birth Vocations. "She tirelessly tells the truth, from the evidence, about insensitive and inequitable maternity care and outcomes in our country; and about the ways that sexual abuse impacts women's experience in pregnancy and childbearing. And (she has shown) how respectful, sensitive maternity care can assist in healing."
Over the years, Simkin has earned a number of impressive titles – licensed physical therapist, researcher, certified childbirth educator, certified birth doula and doula trainer, author, advocate. She recently earned yet another: Doctor.
At its June graduation ceremony, Bastyr University bestowed Simkin with an honorary Doctor of Natural Health Arts and Sciences degree in recognition of her "significant global contributions to childbirth education and humane care in childbirth."
When she stepped to the stage to accept the degree June 20, Simkin used the opportunity to urge Bastyr graduates to encourage their patients to become educated about safe, low-intervention models of maternity care, including midwifery, natural childbirth, doula care and breastfeeding.
"All of you will encounter pregnancy, either in your own lives, your families' lives, or the lives of your clients," she said. "Maternity care, as usually practiced in the United States and many other countries, is suffering. Humane, holistic, preventive, individualized care, and the clinical judgment and skills required to provide such care, are rapidly giving way to a misplaced emphasis on surgery, diagnostic technology, powerful medications, efficiency and profit."
Seattle's Child asked Simkin to reflect on her 50 years serving childbearing women and their families.
SC: What is the biggest challenge for childbearing women and families today?
Simkin: Returning normalcy to the birth process. Almost every measure of quality (in maternity care) is getting worse: infant and maternal mortality and morbidity; prematurity (although the rates have improved slightly for two years in a row), "near-misses" (mothers and babies who nearly died but survived) and the rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after childbirth, which is now at almost 10 percent.
What is the legacy you hope to leave behind?
Simkin: I'd like to think that I will leave behind some accessible knowledge about normal birth – the psychological and physiological processes – so that when (not if) the pendulum swings away from today's highly intervention approach, people in the future won't have to rediscover what we had to discover back in the 1970s. I can't believe how shocked I was when I learned that women can actually stand and walk right after birth!
I also hope I leave behind some people who may have learned some positive things about birth from me, and that they pass [it] on to their children, who will grow up assuming that they are well equipped and fully capable of giving birth or supporting their loved ones through birth.
What were you thinking as your doctorate was bestowed?
Simkin: To be completely honest, I thought that these beautiful young graduates probably can't wait until I stop talking. I was last on the program! It was truly a great honor, and I feel privileged to have received it from Bastyr University, a leader in natural health education and promotion.
You are in your seventies, I believe – do you think you will ever retire from your work as a writer, advocate, researcher, doula and therapist?
Simkin: I can't imagine retiring. What on earth would I do?
If you had only one piece of advice to give childbearing women or families, what would it be?
Simkin: I guess I'd advise them that the day they give birth is a day they will remember for the rest of their lives, not only because their lives are forever changed as they take on the role of parent, but also because the personal transformation within the birthing mother, and also the father or co-parent or spouse or partner, is huge.
It's too important to leave the basic decisions to others. Choices like where you give birth, whom you select as your clinical care provider, and whom you have there for your personal comfort and well-being have a huge impact on how well-cared for you feel and how you feel about yourself during this highly vulnerable time. In fact, these decisions are more important for your long-term psychological wellbeing than whether you have an easy or straightforward or difficult or complicated birth.
I hope for every woman that she can have the best possible birth as she defines it, so that she can look back on it with satisfaction, fulfillment, and greater self-esteem. What a great frame of mind to bring into parenthood!
Cheryl Murfin is a Seattle freelance writer, longtime contributor to Seattle’s Child and owner of Nesting Instincts doula service.