Embracing the highs, the lows and the adventures
When Laura Ehmann found herself attending an all-Italian Catholic school in Chicago at the age of 11, it was a precursor of things to come.
The program director at ArtStart in Rhinelander remembers her time at the school as “life-changing,” and it set the standard for the way she has lived ever since: embracing life and experiencing without hesitation whatever comes her way.
Her education at the Italian school was an early sojourn outside of her comfort zone, but it was far from the last. As a young adult, the adventurous Laura, whose roots are in Tomahawk, went to Barbados for a year and a half after attending UW-Madison to serve in the Peace Corps. At the time she was there, she recalls, Barbados was the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, after Haiti. She worked for the Barbados Cancer Society, but at the time, there was a deep social stigma about cancer there. She enjoyed making friends while in Barbados, but she also remembers that particular job as a tough one.
Not a woman to retreat from a challenge, and one who harbors a healthy sense of adventure, Laura later traveled even further south than Barbados – much further.
“The National Science Foundation was advertising for janitors in Antarctica,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘I’ll never get to see it otherwise,’ so I signed on.” In 1989, she took up residence at McMurdo Station, a U.S. Antarctic research center that’s located within a portion of the continent claimed by New Zealand.
Laura spent three months at the bottom of the world. “It was light 24 hours a day when I was there,” she says. Despite their distance from loved ones, the cold temperatures and the stark landscape, those who live in Antarctica don’t forget how to have fun. McMurdo was the most heavily populated station in Antarctica and is just a couple of miles from New Zealand’s science station, Scott Base. “The New Zealand base always had better beer,” Laura recalls with a smile, adding that she learned how to swing dance while in Antarctica.
She also recalls a saying among the people who live and work on that frozen continent: “The first year is for the adventure, the second year is for the money and the third year is because you fit in nowhere else.”
But the outgoing Laura, who loves to travel and has visited several countries, knew exactly where she fit in. “I wanted to move back to the Northwoods,” she says, “so I got a job as a crew leader for the WCC [Wisconsin Conservation Corps].” The year was 1992. Laura had to learn to use a chainsaw and she also had to learn some carpentry skills so she could teach young Native Americans how to use chainsaws to build wheelchair accessibility ramps. “I liked that job a lot,” she says. In time, though, casinos changed life on reservations and Laura moved on to other endeavors.
She has an affinity for helping others along their own life journeys, and her role in the modern midwifery movement is a reflection of that. Together with her best friend and business partner, Laura co-owns the Midwest Maternal Child Institute (MMCI) in Milwaukee, one of two state-accredited midwifery schools in Wisconsin. They bought the school, which offers certified professional midwife and perinatal educator certificate programs, in 2008. Laura serves as the school’s CEO, teaches some of the courses, and takes care of student services, recruiting and administrative duties.
For millennia, women have assisted other women with the birthing process. However, in modern industrial societies, birth was relegated to hospitals, where many women felt that control over their bodies and the birthing experience was taken from them. In the 1960s and 1970s, the modern midwifery movement began to grow, and more women are now choosing to give birth at their homes with the assistance of midwives. Laura is quick to emphasize, however, that home births and midwives’ services are simply another option for many women, not a replacement for conventional medicine. “We train for normal birth,” she says. “We’re not in competition with obstetricians.”
Facing endings is as much a part of life as dealing with beginnings. After all her travels, Laura has embarked on a different kind of journey since losing her husband, Ron Parkinson, who died in June after an illness.
Knowing of an impending death allows people to say what needs to be said before it’s too late, and Laura and her husband recognized this. “We were very open with each other,” she says. “I believe there’s such a thing as dying well. He was an example of that.”
Fortunately, she had a strong support system during Ron’s illness and death: Her sister and brother-in- law had moved in to help while she cared for Ron during his illness, and they still live with her, an arrangement Laura enjoys.
Preparing for her husband’s death, taking ownership of his service afterward and doing it all with the support of family members was another lifechanging experience. “What I’ve learned is that death needs to be midwifed,” Laura says. “It’s about options, as opposed to censoring or shaking fingers at anybody.”
Laura doesn’t let her husband’s death keep her from living her life; instead, she moves through her grief, trusting that it will lead her into a new phase. She has never stopped learning and is currently working on a doctoral degree through the California Institute of Integral Studies. Her focus is on dealing with death and dying, and her dissertation is about finding a language for grief. “I don’t know what that’s going to manifest into,” Laura says, “but I know it’s going to manifest into something.”
In the meantime, in addition to her studies, her work with MMCI and her travels, she enjoys her role at ArtStart, one she has played since the end of 2010. “I’m so proud of [ArtStart],” she says. “I’m so proud of what we’ve been able to do there.”
It seems Laura Ehmann’s life is about coming full circle: She has moved from north to south and back again. Through MMCI, she plays an integral role in lives that are beginning, and she now intends to play a role in helping those facing the end of their journey.
For Laura, who is open to possibilities and who has experienced both highs and lows, her time on earth is a series of adventures and her approach to life is straightforward: “I say yes,” she says, “when I can say yes.”