The S.B. Questionnaire: Laurel Phillips

Talking Babies and Miracles with the Artist, Midwife, and Founder of the Santa Barbara Birth Center

Laurel Phillips

Paul Wellman

Laurel Phillips

“Don’t you all know this miracle has happened?” asks Laurel Phillips, of the births she sees regularly in her work as a midwife and founder/president of the Santa Barbara Birth Center. “It’s an ordinary miracle. I go back into the real world and yet I can’t help but feel touched.”

Laurel was naturally inclined to being a midwife, explaining, “I was always holding babies and babysitting.” After many years of apprenticeship with Santa Barbara Midwifery, where she started her journey in 1996, Laurel became a licensed midwife and a partner in the organization in 2011, the same year they opened the groundbreaking center. “It feels like a huge privilege,” she elaborates about her job. “It’s such an intimate time in people’s lives. They are going through a big transformation, and we’re part of it.”

Lovely is the best word to sum up Laurel, who is also a fine art painter. She’s grounded, even serene, and wears a genuine smile as we converse. “I live in the house I grew up in Montecito,” she tells me. “My kids are the third generation in my family to go to Montecito Union. The tree in front of the school was planted by my mom’s Girl Scout troop.“ Her grandparents lived across the street from her as she grew up.

In 1988, Laurel went to Washington state to attend The Evergreen State College. During the summer of her first year, she met her future husband Glen Phillips, the singer-songwriter from Toad the Wet Sprocket, in Santa Barbara. (They split amicably in 2014.) She then attended SBCC and transferred to UCSB’s College of Creative Studies to study art.

Upon graduating in 1993, she kept painting, fixated on figurative oil painting. On the weekends, she’d drive to Santa Monica to study with the “wildly talented” artist Jan Valentin Saether. “I didn’t understand yet what my relationship to art was yet,” she confesses. “I didn’t feel like I had anything to say. I didn’t paint for 10 years. I was heartbroken.”

Laurel always knew midwifery was “my other love.” In 1978, her sister was delivered by the same midwife that Laurel wound up studying with. In 1995, Laurel’s first daughter was born with the help of a midwife.

Midwives are licensed and certified women’s health care practitioners, trained to care for healthy women with low-risk pregnancies. There are two primary benefits, says Laurel.

First, midwives offer extensive prenatal care that gives the mother more than one hour of facetime during appointments, when they go over nutrition, discuss psychological well-being, and plan for a support system after the baby is born. “It’s more than clinical care,” Laurel explains. “It’s emotional and psychological. It’s a whole picture of well being.”

The second benefit is during the labor and birth. “We are mammals, so the birth process is hormone driven,” Laurel explains. “And the process is affected by how comfortably the setting is and how the mother feels.” Midwives create a familiar environment, and there are usually four midwives looking after the mother and child. Each midwife is on call 18 days a month, and I see that responsibility firsthand as Laurel checks her cell phone regularly during our lunch.

“Part of our training is to deal with normal emergencies,” she explains. “But we don’t hesitate to go to the hospital.” They work in consultation and collaboration with obstetricians, neonatologists, and pediatricians.

“Our babies are calmer,” says Laurel about the benefits of home birth. “There’s a higher rate of breast feeding, and lower rate of postpartum depression.”

But eventually Laurel realized that women needed an option somewhere between home birth — which makes some women uncomfortable — and the hospital. That was especially true as the hospital route dwindled over the past two decades from three options — St. Francis Hospital closed and Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital phased out their delivery department — to just one, Cottage Hospital.

The S.B. Birth Center is essentially the same as home birth, but inside a well-equipped facility. “It’s like coming to our house for delivery,” says Laurel, whose center also provides breastfeeding support and group meetings for both prenatal and postnatal mothers. “Isolation is one of the hardest things after labor,” says Laurel, who is quick to credit the extensive group effort required to open and operate the center. “We’re such an amazing team,” she exalts. “We’ve found support everywhere.”

As an artist, Laurel experienced a breakthrough in 2005 after she attended the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, where the focus was on the process of creating rather than the end product. “The creativity flood gates opened,” she says. “It stopped my inner critic and I started painting again.” Soon after, she had an exhibit of her work at the College of Creative Studies.

Laurel Phillips answers the Proust Questionnaire.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

All the unnamed and common midwives and mothers and daughters and wives who have been tending, holding, comforting, shepherding, and loving those in their care since the dawn of time.

What do you like most about your job?

I like it when the births are straightforward and perfect because it reminds me how well our bodies work and how wise nature is. When they don't go easily, I like knowing that I can make a real difference in the outcome, use my expertise and my love, act quickly and well, save a life.

What I love the most is how absolutely real people are when they are giving birth. It's the land of no bullshit and I relax there. Women are so fierce. I always want to know the real deeper truth under what someone says, and in labor you get down to the absolute rock bottom genuine truth. It's the same with death, and I think I could be equally happy in hospice work.

My purpose in life is to be the person people want with them when they are giving birth or dying.

Who do you most admire?

I admire people who create art that makes me shiver with longing and envy, who introduce me to what is possible that I never considered before. I admire people who work really hard to understand the things we don't yet know in medicine, astrophysics, biology, especially if it involves a lot of meticulous and boring math. I admire people who question everything and still have faith in God. I admire people who can live alone and stay healthy and sane. And people who can make me laugh while talking about the heaviest worries of our time.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Ecstatic intimacy. Being lost in making a painting while the hours fly by and I find I’ve done something real and maybe new. A long backpacking trip in a stunning place with my lover where we are away from time and our attention is pure and relaxed, and the work is concrete and achievable. A really great book that is long and won’t end anytime soon. Holding a sleeping baby on my chest.

What is your greatest fear?

The loss of one of my daughters.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Sleep. I will never deny myself sleep if I can have it. Sorry about our lunch plans.

What is your current state of mind?

The spectre of the disaster of climate change terrifies me and is unprecedented in the history of the world. The global community is fracturing into nationalism. Our country is tanking spectacularly and needs immediate fixing and it might be too late. I want to be up to the task and I'm afraid I'm not. And I'm in love and thrilled with my life and full of hope and awe. The tension between the two is odd.

What is the quality you most like in people?

Curiosity.

What is the quality you most dislike in people?

Fakeness. Endless shallow small talk. Self-absorption.

What do you most value in friends?

The ability to ask probing questions and be interested in the answers. Both of themselves and of me.

What is your most marked characteristic?

My gorgeous kitten Benjamin has just returned from a three-week hiatus to, we finally found out, the neighbor’s house. I have been told by those who know me well that I am a cat — passionately intimate and then gone (and then back). I’d like to think otherwise but I’d like to think lots of things.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

“Passionate,” “fiercely," “unique,” “super cool,” and “more, please."

Which talent would you most like to have?

I would love to be able to sing full-throated, full-range funky soul like my friend, Jess. I think people who can sing like that must get a feeling of joy and release like nothing else.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I dearly wish that I were a neat freak. Alas.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Having raised three healthy and sane daughters to adulthood who are unique and self-reliant and full of passion and good humor.

Where would you most like to live?

In the spontaneity of the present moment, with all my heart. In terms of geography, I plan to find that out with a few years of global travel starting in 2020. It definitely includes wild nature, a big garden, a large hearth aflame, a roiling body of water, and room for all my dear ones to come stay and be fed and loved.

What is your most treasured possession?

My mental health. So much of our experience is just due to chemical balances in the brain. Life can be hell if those are off-kilter.

Who makes you laugh the most?

My man, Peter, who is gentle, kind, wise, and has the humor of a crusty old fart. It’s irreverent and usually inappropriate and I love it, especially since he helps me laugh at myself. I can be so earnest.

And my daughters. There is nothing formulaic about the way they see the world and their humor always catches me off guard. Thank goodness for group texts because that keeps all three far-flung daughters weighing in. If you see me sinking to the curb in helpless silent laughter, that’s what I’m looking at.

What is your motto?

I don't have one. I change too much! I don't know enough yet to have settled on a motto.

On what occasion do you lie?

When I say each and every baby is the cutest baby ever. Mine were the cutest.