After three decades of ushering new entrants into the world, midwife Cynthia Jaffe is ready to make her exit from the profession.
The Greenbank Birth Center, which Jaffe has owned and operated since 1992, officially closed its doors in August after she delivered her last baby. She retired in October after her last postpartum check-up.
For Jaffe, her calling for midwifery began all the way across the world when she lived in Jerusalem. Her own midwife became a good friend of hers, eventually helping to secure her a position as an assistant to another midwife.
“I just felt like the heavens opened for me,” Jaffe said. “My first thought was, ‘I’m not worthy.’ And then my second thought was, ‘Well, let me just try to be worthy.’”
Upon moving back to the states, she received her formal training at Seattle Midwifery School in 1987. She graduated in 1990 and thus began her career of “catching babies.”
“You are responsible for two lives. That’s a great honor and a very heavy burden,” she said. “You carry that weight with you all the time, peoples’ expectations. Sometimes it feels a little overwhelming.”
Early on, she identified that building the Greenbank Birth Center on Whidbey Island would be a good idea because it offered a midpoint between a home birth and a hospital birth, filling a void of sorts. At the time, Medicaid wouldn’t cover home births but it did cover births in a state-licensed facility such as a birth center.
Jaffe delivered her first Greenbank Birth Center baby on Christmas Eve in 1992.
“That felt kind of auspicious, even though I’m Jewish,” she said.
Over the years, she welcomed several thousand babies at the cozy little building in the woods, including multiple generations of Whidbey families. She’s also made herself available for women who prefer home births.
Oak Harbor resident Bailey Pace is one of these cases. Jaffe was present during her birth over two decades ago, which took place at home.
“I like to say that Bailey was her mom’s first home birth and she liked it so much that she had four more kids,” Jaffe joked.
Pace has had both of her sons at the Greenbank Birth Center. Her second, Tommy, was born this August and marked one of Jaffe’s last deliveries.
“We got very lucky that she wasn’t retired yet,” Pace said.
She added that having Jaffe as her midwife was her first choice, as opposed to a hospital setting.
“It’s just so personal and the care is just focused on you and keeping you safe,” she said.
As a midwife, Jaffe has provided both prenatal and postpartum care for mothers.
“People, I think, don’t understand our training,” she said. “We carry the same drugs and medication that anybody in the hospital would have for bleeding and oxygen and neonatal resuscitation. Most things we can handle here and if not, off we go to the hospital.”
Jaffe was the first midwife to work at WhidbeyHealth for a brief period of time in 2013. Although hospital births didn’t turn out to be her forte, she was glad to see the hospital hire another midwife.
“I feel really positive that they saw a need for midwifery in the hospital, and that feels good to be a part of that,” she said.
She believes there are basic fundamental and philosophical differences between an obstetrician and a midwife.
“We believe that the body inherently wants to live and wants to protect the mother and the baby and has many resources at its disposal and our job is to encourage those things and also to watch out when things do go out of the range of normal,” she said.
She added that there is often a certain fear factor in a hospital setting, which can lead women to feel as if they aren’t in control.
“My philosophy has always been, just keep everything calm,” she said. “The baby’s going to be born on the bathroom floor? Okay, we’ll just move everything into the bathroom.”
She has also tried to integrate fathers into the birthing process as much as possible, with some of them actually delivering their own children while she stands by.
“I think a lot of women really want to have more say and I think they like the fact that the whole family is treated with this sort of reverence that you don’t always get, that there’s a spiritual side to welcoming a new soul on this planet,” she said.
Julie Buktenica, Jaffe’s cousin who lives in Langley, delivered her second child at the Greenbank Birth Center in 2000.
“She’s very much about empowering her moms and her families with as much information as they want or need, essentially collaborating on their care decisions,” Buktenica said.
Gil Low, Buktenica’s spouse, recalled that the couple’s scheduled appointments with Jaffe while Buktenica was pregnant were relaxing.
“It was such a secure feeling to have Cynthia sort of go through stuff,” he said. “It just felt really helpful to have her kind of experience.”
“We didn’t even close the car door,” Buktenica recalled about the birth. “It was very fast.”
The pain of a natural childbirth has not deterred women from seeking out Jaffe’s services as a midwife. In fact, she thinks midwife births are growing in popularity.
“I think it can be so empowering,” she said. “When you have a baby without medication you feel like you can do anything. I still have that feeling and my boy’s 38 years old.”
She added, “I think for women, there’s just not many rites of passage anymore. We don’t really get that test of who we are, but having a baby brings it out.”
Not all changes over the years have been good, however. She has watched the island evolve into a place that’s outside of the range of income that most young families can attain.
“I feel like for Whidbey Island, one of my sadnesses is that I just saw less and less young people able to afford to live here, and that’s my demographic,” she said. “Those are the people I want to help.”
In the last five years, it’s also gotten more expensive for her to practice.
“Malpractice insurance is high, reimbursement is low,” she said. “I think the insurance companies are squeezing us out of business.”
Although she’s had some interest from other midwives in continuing on the Greenbank Birth Center, purchasing a home on Whidbey Island is expensive and the business would come with overhead costs.
“There’s no real guaranteed income,” she said. “Some months I’d have a lot of births, some months I’d have two births. So it was always kind of ebb and flow. That made it a challenging business to take on.”
She’s not sure what will become of the Greenbank Birth Center building. She joked about a “fairy godmother midwife” dropping in with a million dollars.
And her plans for retirement? Similarly undecided.
“I’m just going to sleep through the night for about six months and then decide,” she said. “I’m drawn to midwifery. I could totally see myself doing volunteer work somewhere.”
Over the years Buktenica has heard many testimonies from other community members who have had Jaffe as their midwife.
“I always felt honored to be her cousin,” Buktenica said.
Shellie Moore, a retired doula who provided support during labor for women who had Jaffe as their midwife, has been impressed by her devotion for so many years.
“I’m hoping to see her continue to share her wisdom in different ways without having to stay up all night and be on call 24/7,” Moore said. “Whatever happens, she’s still going to be a blessing to this world.”