With each passing year, my understanding of what it means to be a mother deepens, gets challenged, and teaches me more about myself and who I would like to be more than any other of life’s circumstances. This week’s goop is dedicated to all the beautiful mothers in the world, especially my own.
Our friend, the talented director Mary Wigmore Reynolds, has made a beautiful film about Ina May Gaskin, one the most important voices in midwifery today. Below, we interview Mary about her experience making this enlightening documentary and how it’s changed her perspective on childbirth. Watch a clip from the documentary and read the interview with Mary below.
Interview with Mary Wigmore Reynolds, Director
How did you first hear about Ina May Gaskin?
My friend and co-director Sara Lamm gave me a dog-eared copy of Ina May’s book, Spiritual Midwifery when I was pregnant with my son. It’s the sort of book a wise friend passes on with knowing eyes. My husband and I were so excited about being parents—but I really didn’t know the first thing about giving birth and it felt scary. By the second page, I actually felt less afraid. By the end of the book, we were optimistic that childbirth could even be fun. Then we wanted to know more about the ecstatic birthing hippies of the Farm, the large American intentional community in the hills of Tennessee, where Ina May and the Farm Midwives have been delivering babies with outstanding outcomes since the carnival-esque days of their founding in 1970.
What was it about her message and work that resonated with you and made you want to make the documentary?
Her first lesson is that our bodies are built to have children—I love the fact that her most radical lesson is so simple. She reminds us that it’s a natural physiological process and women have been doing it for quite some time! We don’t have to be afraid, especially when we have knowledgeable, compassionate people supporting us.
We wanted to make a film that celebrates birth and we wanted to show the midwife model of care, so people can actually see more or less first hand and be inspired by the work these great women do. Even in the most complicated births (and there are a couple in our film), they are calm, smart and supportive—truly heroic. The hope is that Birth Story can be useful to anyone caring for pregnant women—doctors, childbirth educators, doulas and families—perhaps it could inspire more collaboration with midwives among all of these important groups. Most of all I hope it is helpful to people like me—who might be anxious about giving birth and are eager to see positive stories about women’s bodies.
How has working with Ina May changed the way you look at the act of giving birth?
Less afraid! And better informed about the range of choices available to expecting mothers.
After learning more about the high c-section rate in the US (currently around 32%), and our status in maternal mortality (50th in the world), as well as the documented benefits to mother and baby that midwifery care offers, I realized that midwives need to be incorporated much more fully into our system here in the US.
Also, there’s a misconception that midwives are for hippies, or only for supermodels but the truth is that experienced midwives are THE experts in normal birth, and their incredible skill set greatly reduces the need for unnecessary interventions. Many people don’t realize that there are different types of midwives—they can work in hospitals, birthing centers or at home—and working with a midwife doesn’t necessarily mean forgoing pain medication. Its good for everyone to choose what works for them—but it should be an informed choice, one that takes into account the range of options available.
What was it like for you to film such intimate scenes of pregnant women’s checkups and births?
As one of Farm Midwives says in the film, “When you see a woman working that hard having her baby, you can’t help but fall in love with her.” That’s how I felt! We are so conditioned to seeing women’s bodies doing everything but giving birth, or seeing birth in narratives of crisis in popular culture, that it was a gift and honor to be allowed to represent it as we did.
What, to you, are the benefits of having a natural childbirth?
We choose our words carefully after our immersion in this project: “Natural birth” is evocative, and has a beautiful ring to it, but it gives the impression that a woman who needs a C-section has somehow had an unnatural experience. All birth is important and we never want anyone to feel pressured or like they have failed because their experience didn’t go as planned. Sara and I talked a lot about the term “minimal-intervention birth;” it sounds more clinical but it reflects more accurately what we think the goal should be: to have a healthy birth with as few interventions as possible, that will shift according to circumstance. It’s important to be open to interventions when needed. When you work with a care provider, be it a midwife or OB, who understands that concept, you are reducing your risk of complications from major abdominal surgery, increasing your confidence in your own ability, and setting up a situation where there is much less trauma physically and psychologically to mother and baby.
The film shows scenes from a communal living situation that has dissipated somewhat since the 70’s. Why do you think that is?
Oh boy—good question. There are so many possible reasons: personal, social, economic—all of them reflecting the times and the drift of culture. Much of “Birth Story” takes place at The Farm, which the popular imagination might refer to as a “commune,” but the folks at the Farm prefer the term “intentional community” and it makes sense because their lives were and are indeed willful efforts to live as they saw fit, from the work they did, to what they ate and where their food came from, to the way they shared resources. I think of them as pioneers of what is now becoming so popular in our culture—growing and eating fresh organic food, concern for the environment, intentional living, etc.
Where many communes have collapsed all together, The Farm continues on as a co-op. So in their case, it’s a happy ending or happy beginning of the next phase.
In the movie, Ina May talks about a “special energy that surrounds a birth.” Can you talk more about that?
The intensity of childbirth is perhaps the greatest sort of open secret of existence—it’s not something you see everyday (or ever). Yet, we all come into the world this way…
There is a beauty and magic about birth that exceeds language. It’s not a medical condition. It’s the essence of life and it’s beautiful!
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