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Cynthia Jaffe: A forward-looking Hometown Hero | HOMETOWN HERO
There is strength in living forwards, not backwards.
Remembering the past is different than living in the past, said Cynthia Jaffe, a midwife on South Whidbey since 1987. Children make us look forward: How they arrive in our lives can come in many different ways but the changes they bring and the love they engender make us better human beings.
Jaffe’s calling of midwifery is about helping parents raise healthy families and this makes for a better community, said Patricia Handrich Rohan, office manager for the Woman’s Center where Jaffe is the midwife.
“This community is so fortunate to have this dedicated, tireless, compassionate person to midwife women and families in one of the most important, life-changing and transformative events in our human experience,” Handrich Rohan said. “If Cynthia is Wonder Woman, I am holding up her cape and covering her back so she can go out there and do her job! She was called to become a midwife, and she answered that calling with her whole being, giving 100 percent of herself for so many families in this community.”
Jaffe has been present at 1,200 beginnings and has been witness to so much fundamental change in people’s lives that it has shaped her philosophy of life.
“Life must be lived in the moment,” Jaffe said. “We cannot change the past and we cannot predict the future, so we must live in the present and look ahead. The past can deceive us, trap us in it and spoil our future. The past is gone, don’t give it power — live forwards not backwards.”
Val Heggenes, a local mom, tells her story of how Jaffe’s outlook of living forward helped her family.
“Cynthia is kind, confident, knowledgeable, warm and funny. My first homebirth was truly amazing. Birthing my daughter Freja wasn’t just about a baby being born; it was about me becoming a mom. When pain or fears got the better of me, Cynthia was right there to offer support and information and encouraged my husband to be a part of the whole process.”
Heggenes’ second daughter Edie was born with unforeseen chromosomal abnormalities and only lived for 2 and one-half weeks.
“We were, and still are, devastated,” she said. “But I believe that it was Cynthia’s experience and expertise that revived Edie and gave us the precious time we had with her. When we finally got pregnant a third time, people wondered if we would choose the same path of midwife and homebirth delivery. And honestly, at the beginning I wasn’t sure, but then I just knew I couldn’t be in any better hands.”
Heggenes said that with Jaffe’s help and assurance of certain things, they were able to view life forward with courage — and third daughter Lena was born in the same room as the other two.
“If Val and her husband Jason had decided not to have another child because of their loss, then they would have been prisoners living in fear of the past,” Jaffe said. “They will always grieve the loss of that baby, as will I, but they chose to look ahead and make room in their hearts to welcome another a baby in their lives.”
Jaffe said she had to come to terms with loss in her work very early on.
“We all handle grief in our own way,” she said. Her woodworker husband Rob Hetler goes off to his workshop and handcrafts a coffin for the parents.
“For me, if I could not use the experience in a positive way, to help others with loss, it would have been impossible for me to continue in my work. Living in the present does not mean that one does not feel or carry all the experiences from one’s life; only that you do not make decisions based on fear from those experiences.”
Sitting with Jaffe and Hetler at the kitchen table of their log cabin, along with their two dogs and a cat, feels as natural as being at your own home. The birthing center and Woman’s Clinic they built sits near their home in Greenbank.
Hetler said, “I feel my job is to listen and have food ready for Cynthia when she returns home from a birth. I want to be her comforter so she can go out and continue to comfort others. In Judaism there is the concept of tikkun Ha-olam which translates as repairing the world. Cynthia embodies this ideal. She sees that it is her responsibility to take care of her community, every day striving to make it a better place.”
Jaffe added, “I used to be adrift, accepting whatever job that I found in the want ads. We lived in Israel at the time when Rob gave me the gift of a question. He said why just take any job, and asked me, ‘What is it you want to do?’”
“This one question changed the way I looked at life. Once our children were born with a midwife I found myself wanting to listen to all of her birth stories. So when I was able to apprentice with a midwife, I felt that heavens had opened up and I was being chosen to lead this life of a midwife. At first I didn’t have any experience, but I did have a car and the midwife didn’t,” she laughed. “I think that was the only prerequisite, that and I mostly did cleanup work.”
When she and Rob and two children Adam and Rebecca moved to the Northwest, she went to the Seattle Midwifery School for formal training. “I felt the calling so strong, and it’s never left me. Each birth is a miracle, a mother is just as excited for her first child as she is her 10th, and that is how each birth is for me. There is something ancient happening in the process that is very powerful. I want to help parents have the best possible birth they can, as I believe this can positively ripple out into the raising of their children.”
“All rites of passage involve pain and blood and go from the feeling -— ‘I cannot do this’ — to the triumph of, ‘Yes! I did it!’” said Jaffe. “I inform mothers that pain is part of birth just as in life, but there are things we can do to ease the pain. It’s my job to remain professional and strong for them, to believe in them when they have lost hope and to share the triumph of their accomplishments.”
“When women need or desire help with their labors I go to the hospital with them and stay with them, the goal is always a healthy mother and baby.”
Jaffe hopes to travel again to developing parts of the world and help women with their health. “It can be so overwhelming to think of all the evil and pain in this world. For instance when I meet young people living broken lives who have come out of neglectful, abusive homes, I wonder if they will ever reach their potential. I struggle with the fact of violence, rape, wars, famine; we each have to do our unique part, whatever that is for each of us, in this world to make it a better place in some way.”
Jaffe is doing her part in this world, says Shellie Moore, retired South Whidbey doula.
“The way Cynthia welcomes newborns to our planet with such tenderness and warmth surely makes a lasting impression for good on their souls. Her brave travels to countries like Afghanistan and India to serve women in developing countries are another testament to her selfless altruism. She treats all with dignity and high regard, whether they are a single, homeless teen mother or a professional.
“Despite Jaffe’s demanding schedule and consuming profession, her devotion to her family is inspiring,” Moore said. “I have seen women empowered with strength through Cynthia’s guidance.”
Jaffe said whether you’re in labor delivering a baby or dealing with everyday life situations, take this approach: “Look forward, if something is holding you back, let it go, make something good from it, focus on today. Keep the long view of your life in front of you; there is strength and hope in today and tomorrow.”
Up close and personal
Who are some South Whidbey people you admire?
“I admire all those families and single parents who struggled on in these hard economic times. I admire those religious leaders who strive to teach tolerance and acceptance for all people. I admire our teachers, volunteer firefighters, EMTs and paramedics. To all of the midwives and doctors that came before me. For all those women and families who have walked daily through my door. I admire Lynn and Blake Willeford’s ability to put their vision into action. Shellie and Lance Moore for their generosity of spirit and willingness to offer a hand to those in need. Crystal Ogle for her hard work and dedication to the study and art of midwifery in the face of great personal hardship. Rob Hetler for his commitment to bettering our community through all his years of volunteerism, and Julie Buktenica for unwavering love and support.”
Who would you like to meet?
“Nelson Mandela for his courage and dedication. He maintained his dignity in the face of unspeakable deprivation and hardship and led a nation to peace and reconciliation. He even believed his prison guards were as much prisoners as those behind bars and he never forgot his humanity and compassion for all.”
What advice would you give?
“If you wish you could do something, do more than ‘wish’ you could; do what you want to do.”
What bores you?
“Self pity. We are not entitled to anything in this world, those that bemoan that they didn’t have this or that advantage. We have to take what we have and make the best of it.”
What does it mean to have class?
“Not to take ‘cheap shots’ just to show someone they are wrong. Silence most times is the better path and shows class.”
What do you wish you could do over and better this time?
“I would love to be a parent of young children again. I have learned so much over the years and would love the chance to be a better parent. I have more patience now and would be less worried about keeping my house clean and more interested in going out with them and exploring.”
What one question would you like to ask God?
“How can I help?”
What is something you don’t understand about people?
“Why is it that some people say they have a strong faith, yet when life gets tough, they panic; shouldn’t faith be strong in good and bad times?