Giving birth in the USA has been a long and winding road, throughout the two and half centuries of our history. What began as home birthing, for lack of modern medical facilities, moved into hospitals in the early to mid-twentieth century. In the 1990s and 2000s we saw more people having their children back at home. In the years that follow this return to a more natural approach to birthing, expectant mothers and their partners are discovering the benefits of the burgeoning co-op birth movement. That’s right: more mothers are having their babies at the natural, organic, community-owned grocery store.
“It makes perfect sense,” says veteran midwife Mona Matthews. Matthews has been in midwifery for thirty years. She estimates she has delivered upwards of 3000 children, just ten percent in hospital settings, 2700 at the parents’ homes, and sixteen at local food coops. Sixteen and counting. She points out that many women who home-birthed enjoyed the coziness and familiarity of the home environment, but nonetheless felt isolated, a problem seldom experienced at a hospital. “But at the co-op birthing room, support from the entire community is never more than twenty steps away. The people that care about you are close by, and the access to healthy food and medicine is unparalleled.” Many mothers agree. If you need evening primrose oil to speed labor up, you can find it in Health and Beauty, aisle 4. Comfort food? Readily available in the deli. Medical intervention? There’s almost always a doctor or nurse in the building, plus the co-op is never far from the clinic, hospital, or ambulance service.
Most states allow for the sale of beer and wine in grocery stores, and many sell full liquor. Mothers and midwives don’t count this as a feature, necessarily, but liquor sales go up in the presence of nervous partners during marathon labor sessions. Once the baby is born, families want to raise a glass. James Bryan, the proud father of a baby born at the Cannon Center co-op in Watertown, celebrated with a purchase of a bottle of Irish whiskey. “I don’t usually splurge like this, but they had a 20% discount, and this is a big deal!” Bryan and his wife, Melissa, named their baby for the moment: James’son Bryan.
No one can say when and where the first intentional co-op birth took place, but it’s a safe bet that Parker City’s general manager, Pamela Smicks, was the first by happenstance. Twenty-three years old, pregnant, and just out of college in 1993, Smicks was stocking macaroni and cheese at Parker City when she felt her baby kick and her water broke. “It was snowing heavily, and there was no way I was going to ride my bike to my home or to the hospital. Before you knew it, I had my baby in the bathroom. It was the weirdest combination of events, I mean here I was on the bathroom floor at work, and I’m having like the most meaningful experience of my life.” Smicks’s daughter, Annie, was born that day, and Annie gave birth to her own son, Drew, at the same store in 2015.
Smicks is quick to admit that co-op birthing isn’t for everyone. There are some customers who would rather not know that a baby is being born nearby, nor listen to a woman in labor while sipping their coffee. But she points out that the community response has been overwhelmingly positive. “The most beautiful moments we ever have in this store are when a father emerges from the birthing room, with a swaddled baby raised above his head, and the whole store just stops. People cheer and they cry and they buy things for the mother and the baby. Sales peak, and it’s just so incredible. It’s the happiest place on Earth.”
Smicks would know. She and Mona Matthews, Parker City’s in-demand midwife, have formed a partnership. In addition to birthing support and services, they are adding parenting support groups, a milkshare network, and after birth cooking classes to their monthly schedules. And now Smicks is expecting her second grandchild, to be born at the co-op, next October.