Brazen Woman 2008: Maria Iorillo       

Maria Iorillo had always thought she wanted to be a doctor. She knew she’d need a scholarship to go to medical school, so even as a teen she was focused and driven, a straight-A student. She received a scholarship to Tufts, completed one year of premed, and had an epiphany: something big was missing from her medical education, she just wasn’t sure what. School seemed totally impersonal, the classes competitive and soulless; her classmates seemed only interested in the money or prestige. She realized that after 10 years of school she’d be a fantastic surgeon – with no bedside manner. She immediately gave up her med school dream. But she had never contemplated an alternative. She settled for completing her undergrad in biology and Spanish literature. In retrospect she says she learned a lot at Tufts, but not about medicine. She learned about alternative lifestyles, communal living, feminism, and herself. She discovered that she did not have to follow along with the mainstream culture.

After graduation, Maria lived on Martha’s Vineyard. A male classmate approached her with a book he had discovered on the bookshelf of his sublet. “I saw this and thought you’d like to read it,” he told her, as he handed her Spiritual Midwifery. Maria had never heard of the word “midwife” until that moment. Within the pages of Spiritual Midwifery she found all the unnamed things that had been missing from her medical education. She discovered a model of healing that embraced women’s bodies and wisdom, that understood people as whole beings: as an integration of heart and soul, of social, emotional, familial, psychological, spiritual, cosmic… everything.

Like so many others of her generation, Maria’s initiation onto the path to midwifery began with reading Ina May Gaskin’s now classic book. When she was done, she ran out and bought herself a small paperback edition of Heart and Hands. In the back she discovered information for the Maternity Center in El Paso. By the following January she was in school in Texas. She spent the year of 1986 in “midwifery boot camp”, and loved it. She left with midwifery license from New Mexico. Then she moved to California.

Maria had met Janice Kalman in Texas, and admired her intelligence and courage. Though Janice had told her stories of the underground practices in California, Maria could not accept that her own work suddenly became criminal when she crossed the state line. She immediately dedicated herself to working for the legalization of midwifery in California. She went to her first CAM meeting within weeks of arriving in the state, and they snatched her up to be regional rep that day. She remained on the CAM Board for the next 10 years.

Maria was young, energetic and interested, and she asked a lot of questions. Not long after she became rep, she asked about the legislative committee, and was handed a milk crate full of folders and a new position as legislative chair. Not knowing where to begin, she followed the lead of women like Janice and Elizabeth Davis, and made it up as she went along.

Maria remembers feeling ill prepared for the job because she had never taken a political science or communication class. Yet those who worked alongside her are quick to recall her powerful communication skills. Maria’s natural talent with words enabled her to bridge the worlds of politicians and midwives. She would gracefully and patiently explain the workings of Sacramento until the midwives really understood what they were up against. Her charisma and confidence were inspirational, her excitement contagious. Her way with words succeeded with the politicians as well – legislators knew she was smart and worth listening to. She was instrumental in securing the support of Senator Killea.

Few would expect the truth, that Maria was actually terrified of public speaking. She spoke a number of times in front of the business and professional committee of the state senate, and would sit in the bathroom memorizing cheat sheets before taking her turn. She believed so strongly in the mission of CAM that she forced herself to work through her fears. In addition, the height of Maria’s legislative activity coincided with her pregnancy! She remembers throwing up in government bathrooms before big meetings. It was a time of tremendous self-growth.

Maria’s son Tyler was born in the midst of California midwives’ legislative battle. Maria had always known she wanted to have a baby at 28 years old. So with her classic drive and determination, she got pregnant a month after she turned 28. She refused to take a pregnancy test figuring that if she were pregnant, eventually she would know! Her long cycles threw her off, but when she began throwing up at 8 wks, and an unknown woman showed up at her door with a whole bag of mangos, she knew. By then she had been a midwife for 6 years. She felt honest with herself about what she was getting in to, and she was a die-hard to stay at home. She wanted a midwife she looked up to, not a peer. So she asked Jan Perrone, who lived 6 hours away. Fortunately she had a 24-hour labor, so there was plenty of time for Jan to arrive. She recalls that labor was the “hardest thing ever”, but she never once thought of the hospital or meds. She was just in it, never afraid of it, and just kept on working.

Meanwhile, California midwives tried three times over the course of ten years to get licensing legislation passed. By the time they succeeded it was 1994 and Maria had become the chairwoman of CAM. Janice Kalman and Elizabeth Davis had written model legislation that was completely innovative and brilliant. In the end, the California Medical Association (CMA) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) demanded that Licensed Midwives Practice Act mirror nurse-midwife legislation. The language of the law was almost exactly the same as the Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM) legislation. Unfortunately, though, it excluded prescriptive authority. Fortunately, it did include the challenge process as a route of entry into licensed midwifery. Despite all the ongoing frustrations with this law, Maria feels that we did great job here in California. Other states are just achieving now what CAM accomplished fifteen years ago.

During this time, Maria had also taken a turn as regional rep for the Midwives Alliance of North America (MANA). She remembers how incredible it was for a young midwife like herself to have the opportunity to be on the MANA board. She worked beside the likes of Ina May Gaskin, Rahima Baldwin and Anne Frye. They mentored her and showed her what midwifery was like in other parts of country. She made many friends that she still has today.

By 1996 Maria had completed her terms as MANA rep and CAM chair. She was ready to step down, and happy to spend the next ten years “just” belonging to the two organizations, going to local meetings and conferences, and working on her practice. In reality, Maria continued her extraordinary career as a midwifery advocate and community organizer, this time on a more local scale. She created the Bay Area Homebirth Collective along with Shannon Anton and Stephanie Brill. The collective has grown to include 7 different private practices. Their initial intention was to create community for their clients. The community of midwives was a pleasant addition, connecting the practitioners with trusted peers to provide backup and assists. The collective continues to meet once a month and organize events for clients. Their regular events include a summer picnic and winter holiday party, monthly pregnancy potlucks and mother’s groups. They also offer a yearly vaccination panel featuring a range of practitioners and parents, which gets over 100 people in attendance.

Maria’s routine local activism also included participation on a homebirth safety committee at San Francisco General Hospital. The committee discussed how to smooth out interactions among practitioners during transports. She has gone to grand rounds with a UCSF doctor to discuss midwifery with the hospital providers. She regularly attends Elizabeth Davis’ Heart and Hands intro classes, where she teaches phlebotomy and sits on the midwife panel. She guest lectures at UCSF nursing school, where she has taught about shoulder dystocia and homebirth midwifery. At this point all this networking and provider education has become so customary for her, that she doesn’t even recognize how incredible, and unusual, it is. 

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Maria continues to build her public education repertoire as technology advances. She created an excellent childbirth blog called Women In Charge (wisewomanchildbirth.blogspot.com) complete with stunning birth pictures, touching birth stories and political and educational information. She and her partner Dina Munsch have now ventured into the arena of birth movies. In 2007 they debuted their first DVD titled: It’s My Body, My Baby, My Birth. The movie tells the stories of seven families and their emotional journey towards natural childbirth. Personal tales of transformation are interwoven with educational interviews with Maria, Yeshi Neumann and others. True to her passion for CAM, Maria offered the movie as a fundraising tool, granting a 50% discount for regions to purchase the DVD and resell it at retail value. If you have not yet seen it, get yourself a copy. In addition to being an excellent and current resource, the movie reflects the realities of Maria’s homebirth practice: it features clients from a wide range of cultures, as well as a lesbian family, making it one of the most inclusive homebirth movies on the market. 

Last year, after a decade of peripheral participation in national politics, Maria was nominated to be on the Midwifery Education Action Council (MEAC) Board. Ready to return to “big picture” work, she was to attend her first MEAC meeting in April of 2007. She had a mama with twins due a week and a half before the meeting (see her wonderful story, Blessed Birth, in the Summer 2007 newsletter). She assumed twins wouldn’t come late enough to interfere with her commitment, so she didn’t tell the Board she had babies due. The twins were born the same weekend as the meeting. As a result, when Maria arrived at the May 2007 CAM conference, she had not yet begun her work with MEAC.

At that May 2007 conference, Maria gave a sneak preview of It’s My Body, My Baby, My Birth. Upon seeing it, Maggie Bennett (MANA regional rep) and Diane Holzer (MANA president) insisted she run for first vice president of MANA. They nagged her all weekend, and in the end they won her over. She was elected in November, resigned from the understanding MEAC board, and officially started her new position in April.

Maria’s life has changed dramatically since April. Her days are now routinely 16 hours long. There was no such thing as email the last time she was on the MANA Board. Now the emails flood her inbox all day. Though MANA is not a hierarchical organization, those on the executive council do an enormous amount of work – work that is mostly self-imposed. The first vice president job is what she makes of it. Her official duty is to oversee the committees and make sure they run smoothly, but she has had little time to do so. Since her forte is public relations and the manifestation of ideas, she spends her time writing and spearheading position papers and editorials, designing public relations strategy, and creating media contacts. She has also joined the Mothers Naturally team. Mothers Naturally is MANA's new national educational campaign to get the word out about midwifery and birth options – check it out at www.mothersnaturally.com.

Maria is also using her own movie as a vehicle for public education. She showed it alongside The Business of Being Born at the American College of Nurse Midwives (ACNM) convention this spring. She says that it was received really well. She hopes to make it something all midwives and natural birth advocates can rally around. She reminds us that it is only to our benefit to get the ACNM to collaborate with us. She believes that this generation of CNMs are much more open to the idea of working towards similar goals. The success of the Bridge Club (a joint organization of MANA and ACNM members) highlights this shift.

Nothing dramatizes Maria’s expertise with community organization and publicrelations better than the new Birth Bank and the widely successful San Francisco BirthFest this past winter. Maria was involved with both of these exciting projects. The BirthBank is the local model for CAM’s exciting new project, the California Birth Trust, a grassroots way to make homebirths accessible for MediCal eligible women.  

One of the first Birth Bank recipients had experience with event planning. She was ready to pay back her loan just as Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein began promoting their movie, The Business of Being Born. San Francisco was not originally slated to be one of the opening cities for the film. But Maria repeatedly emailed Abby, offering to create a screening extravaganza and show It’s My Body, My Baby, My Birth as a double feature at the event. She encouraged others to email as well, and it worked. The Business of Being Born dropped their Washington DC opening and moved it to San Francisco instead. The event was a huge success that made over $16,000 profit. Maria and her co-organizers divided the money amongst the Foundation for the Advancement of Midwifery (FAM), Homestyle Midwifery (Yeshi Neumann’s practice), Citizens for Midwifery (CFM), and the growing Birth Bank.

Maria has continued to hone her new relationship with Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein. She made a ten-minute DVD thanking them for their work, and Ricki called to say she cried while watching it. She writes regularly for the The Business of Being Born blog, and she even helped edit their new book. She knows that Ricki opened doors we couldn’t even knock on, and she wants to hold onto that powerful connection.

Maria believes that the homebirth cause is so powerful, and such the underdog, that people like Ricki Lake get drawn into the fight. Our commitment and deep belief in our work keeps us standing strong against incredible odds. Maria points out that ACOG has 52,000 members and ACNM has 11,000. Yet there are only 1,300 Certified Professional Midwives (CPMs) in the entire country. We’re ants trying to push a boulder, and somehow we’re doing a great job!

Maria has a lot of humility around the success of her own midwifery practice. She sees new midwives struggling and remembers what it was like to be there. She remembers what a long process it was to build her reputation in the community. She says she has to continue the political work so she can have confidence that midwifery will become a solid career for us, that midwifery stays available for midwives, women and babies.

Maria credits her amazing drive to a combination of feminism and a strong belief in midwifery. She finds the political work very inspiring. She says that the first years she spent on both the CAM and MANA Boards felt like cheating. She appeared to be doing work for the community, when really she was the one learning and growing so much. MANA paid her airfare for her to sit in room with the major players, the founding mothers of midwifery! Now she is finally aware of how much she has to offer; now she is the idea person.

Maria says that after more than twenty years she is just beginning to learn about her own relationship to midwifery, the depth of her feelings about it and the extent of her commitment. She knows that midwifery is moving in a good direction, but we can’t take it for granted. She is more solid with midwifery than ever before. Now all she needs is some time to rest.




*Disclaimer* 
CAM celebrates the hard work and dedication of the awardee in midwifery activism. In no way should this award be construed as a determination of the midwife's skill nor as a recommendation to use her services.

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