Jeannine Parvati Baker, herbalist, yogini, midwife and author of many books, coined the term "birthkeeper" in the 70's. She was making a paralelism with the term Earth Keeper, an eco activist who would protect the Earth. She was a peace maker in her soul and advocated for peaceful practices in the birth realm speaking up against circumcision and teaching about lotus birth - meaning an intact birth, when the placenta is born attached to the baby's cord. For her, a birthkeeper is someone who serves birthing women out of love.
Jeannine lived in a time when midwifery was on the rise in the US, especially as Ina May Gaskin, author of Spiritual Midwifery, and The Farm midwives were revitalizing midwifey care. My understanding is that women wanted to know more about their bodies and were trying to regain autonomy in the birth process, which had been almost entirely medicalized at that point. Slowly, more and more midwives started to get education and practice independently. Midwives eventually got organized and some decided it was time to be represented by boards which would regulate and certify their knowledge and practice.
Laws regulating midwifery practice differ substantially from one state to the other. But the point is that the trend in regulating and licensing midwifery care in the past 20 to 30 years in the US has led a number of midwives to start calling themselves birthkeepers for fear of persecution! If you are an unlicensed midwife practising in a state where licensure is mandatory, then maybe calling yourself a birthkeeper (instead of a midwfie, which is a term that may be owned by your state) seems safer. But it brings about a lot of confusion, especially nowadays.
I was first exposed to the term birthkeeper about three years ago, when in a Doula Retreat in Bali with CPM Robin Lim and DONA Doula Trainer Debra Pascali-Bonaro. Reading one of Ibu Robin's books (as she is fondly called on the island - ibu meaning mother) Placenta the Forgotten Chakra, I first learned about Jeannine, the mother of Birthkeepers, and some of her magical quotes like "Peace on Earth begins with Birth". In her book, Ibu Robin refers to doulas and midwives alike as birthkeepers, those who hold the ground and the sacred space in which women give birth. In this sense, the term birthkeeper may be used interchangeably with birth worker, whether one is a childbirth educator, a birth photograpgher, a doula, a midwife, a nurse or even a mother or sister serving another woman giving birth. In this sense, we understand birthkeeping not as a profession, but as a lifestyle.
While I was attending births as a doula, mainly in Malaysia, I felt in my core that I wanted to become a midwife. A midwife like the two women who attended my home births in Brazil, Paloma Terra, CPM, and Ritta Pinho, my mentor, who had been a doula and childbirth educator and heard her calling into midwifery like I did later. So I found myself being "only" a doula, but truly knowing I had to become a midwife so I would be able to really serve women and not the system anymore. That's when I started calling myself a birthkeeper, because I was a doula longing to be a midwife!
Furthermore, as I started to get acquainted with the unassisted or freebirth movement, which, until that point, I didn't know was "a thing" - I say that because I am a nurturer by nature and loving a woman when she is giving birth is only natural to me. Then I realized that the loudest voices in this movement were actually attacking midwifery as if all midwives were the same and were jeopardizing women's experience as they were not promoting women's autonomy and authoritative knowledge at birth. To make things worse, now these very loud voices are promoting the term birthkeeper as a profession, so that doulas or anyone without midwifery training can attend a birth and make a business out of it under the alibi that they are just supporting a freebirth (because they are not midwives!).
Unfortunately, midwifery has become a medicalized word. Most people would think that midwives are medically trained. But this is simply not true. There are a number of diffenrent ways to practice and study midwifery. Nurse-midwifery is alledgely a more medical one and midwives trained this way tend to have more obstetrical views on birth. Direct-entry midwives, certified or not, do not need to be nurses, and therefore may have apprencited in a traditional manner from elder midwives in their community, or attended midwifery school. To be a midwife, one needs education, practice and skills even if we are only to use them in rare occasions. Undisturbed birth is really the foundation of the kind of midwifery I am pursuing, embedded in women's autonomy and authority over their bodies, their health and their babies during pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period.
Thankfully, Indie Birth founders, Maryn Green and Margo Blackstone, speak with so much clarity and honesty about who they are, what they do and how they are promoting the new parading of birth, training both doulas and midwives who truly serve women from their hearts. Yes, you may still call yourself a birthkeeper (like myself right now) or whatever you want, but please let us bring more transparency about what it is we are doing and offering women. I am a doula, and a student in training to be an independent midwife, who will not be bound by rules and regulations of any state or country. I believe birth is not a medical event, that women own birth, and therefore I will serve women and their families, not any institutions or licensure laws. For me, this is the only way I will be using my gifts in service of humanity while remaining true to the birthkeeper I am in my heart.