My prenatal yoga class was filled with bright, educated ladies in possession of the lunatic belief that they could create and fulfill natural “birth plans.” One woman anticipated a jungle-themed delivery, complete with bird song recordings. Rather than feeling inspired, I found myself turned off.
I had a kind of pregnancy split-personality: I liked the idea of natural childbirth, but in an undogmatic way, and mostly just because I had heard that epidurals could make you itchy and unable to move, which sounded unsettling. But I was also fairly squeamish about the whole process. I couldn’t watch birth videos. I didn’t like the idea that I would become this panting, moaning mammal-beast that my prenatal yoga teacher predicted we all would.
A cousin sent me her copy of Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth, but it took me a long time to get to it. It wasn’t until I was 35 weeks pregnant that I was ready to read birth stories about laboring women communing with cows on Gaskin’s Tennessee farm, or the joy of making out with your beardy husband as your baby crowns, circa 1972.
When I was ready, though, I was READY. I could not put that book down. I was reading birth stories when I went into labor with my first baby, and I swear to you that just like Gaskin predicted, the spirits of laboring women everywhere found their way to NYU Tisch Hospital in Midtown Manhattan and carried me through what she calls “rushes” (not contractions) and reminded me to keep my jaw loose and my energy focused as I delivered, drug-free, my bright-eyed baby girl.
So I feel, like many other mothers do, a debt of gratitude to Ina May Gaskin, and watched the new documentary “Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives” with tears in my eyes. Yes, there are gray-haired midwives singing about witches (it’s a really cute scene, actually), but don’t let the hippie-dippyness of it all turn you off. As Gaskin puts it, having a better birth isn’t just the concern of ‘a bunch of hippies,’ it’s the concern of every mother. The midwives in the film talk about the love they feel for the laboring women they are helping, and the spiritual elements of creating your family—aspects of giving birth that are often overlooked in a purely clinical setting.
The birth scenes are graphic, to be sure, but what’s most educational about them is how calm the midwives are. There is some harrowing archival footage of a breech birth, but listening to midwives you would have no idea anything was wrong – they calmly flip the laboring mother onto her side, which opens up her hips and pops that topsy-turvy baby out. Only afterwards do their breathy exclamations of relief make it clear to the viewer—and the mother—how high the stakes were.
Every pregnant woman should see this film, if only for the line when Gaskin says of her farm’s origin, “We were actually making our own culture of birth in which fear was not going to be a big part.” Did you hear that? You can choose not to be afraid of childbirth, and it will infinitely improve your experience of pregnancy and delivery.
This is not a film about judging mothers. It’s a film about reminding women of the power we have in our bodies, of how we do not need to be afraid of giving birth. Speaking to a cheering crowd, Ina May says, “Your body is not a badly-made machine!” It’s an idea that is helpful to any pregnant woman, no matter if you’re on a farm or in the city, planning a home birth or anticipating the Drugs Deluxe Plan: the belief that any birth will go better if you can stay calm, dismiss your fear, and tap in to the love that’s at the heart of the whole enterprise.