World’s Most Famous Midwife Says We’re Having Babies All Wrong

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One of my neighbors grew up on The Farm, a Tennessee hippie commune that has always fascinated me. Founded in 1971 by Stephen Gaskin and 300 San Francisco hippies, it’s was influential in all sorts of movements, from vegetarianism to group marriage. I’m not sure if you could say The Farm failed or what, but it still has some folks living there in a newly organized system (they hold private property now, for instance).

Anyhow, Time magazine profiles one of Gaskin’s wives — Ina May Gaskin — who is considered the mother of modern midwifery. She’s written many works on the practice of spiritual midwifery and you can learn more about that at her blog. Her latest book, Birth Matters: A Midwife’s Manifesta (Seven Stories, April 2011), argues that America needs midwives more than ever.

My neighbor who grew up on The Farm passed along this favorable Q&A. It explains she had no medical training and just a master’s degree in English when she began delivering babies on the hippie cross-country trip known as the caravan. She’s credited with inspiring many women to enter the field of midwifery.

In the article, we learn that the C-section rate on the Farm is very low — under 2% for about 3,000 births. That’s much lower than the 20% for general births. Here are a couple of the questions:

Singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, who wrote the foreword to your new book, describes a very long and painful home birth.
Yes, she acknowledges how difficult it can be. But she also asks, Why are we so afraid of pain in childbirth? Why do women who choose unmedicated births get called masochists?

Why the title Birth Matters? Who are you trying to convince?
Lately, I’ve been thinking we really need to get men interested in birth. Because fathers-to-be have a very strong protective instinct, and we’re not utilizing this well. Men instantly understand what I call “sphincter law.” You don’t try to defecate while lying flat on your back tied to various machines with somebody shouting at you! Why do we, then, continue to treat women as if their emotions and comfort, and the postures they might want to assume while in labor, are against the rules?

I’m all for midwifery and unmedicated births. I grew up around a lot of hippies and a lot of homeschoolers and they all seemed to give birth at home and then be up the next day bopping around. I get it and it’s awesome. But I’ve also delivered a couple of children and I think that fear of pain in childbirth is not irrational. It does hurt. As for the freedom to move around during labor, that is a fantastic point and I’m kind of annoyed at the “strap to the table” method that seems to be the regular mode. So weird.

Both of my deliveries involved supreme intervention but I think if I’d had my druthers, I’d have tried for a medicated but less on-my-back method of delivery.