ARLINGTON, VA, May 7, 2013 — Forty years after Ina May Gaskin helped establish The Farm, an intentional living community that was to become a renowned center for midwifery and homebirth, filmmakers Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore set out to tell her story.
Released on April 30, the documentary Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives sheds light on the cultural shifts around birth practices before and after the Farm’s conception and makes the case for midwifery and birth as both sacred and feminist occupations and experiences.
For anyone who has already seen films like The Business of Being Born, Organic Birth or Orgasmic Birth, this one will not feel heavy on statistics and biological arguments for natural birth. There are enough facts to startle a viewer, like the comment that cesarean rates at private hospitals in Brazil are nearing 95%. What does get emphasized in this beautifully shot and scored film is that birth is a sacred act best done in the presence of love, care, and community.
The genesis of The Farm began with a desire, one of the participants explains, to be in community, to help each other and to raise their children better. Real estate in California was too expensive, so, in 1971, the founders of The Farm took their caravan to Tennessee to build their intentional living compound.
Those who remain today minister to Amish families as half of their midwifery practice. Others seeking safe and nurturing homebirth, including residents of Alabama where midwifery is illegal, come to stay at the farm about three weeks before their due dates in one of the compound’s many cabins.
The film includes footage of births in these cabins as well as bucolic scenes of the forests in which they sit and of the meditation meadow that once held sunrise services given by Gaskin’s husband and Farm founder Steven Gaskin. The meadow still hosts women’s circles and offers a spot for women to let go of fears in advance of labor.
It is hard not to want to take a field trip to The Farm amid such lush scenes and uplifting music. And it is difficult to imagine anyone not wanting her baby’s birth in the hands of someone as amusing as Ina May. Whether she is advising a near-term woman on how to squat to bring on labor or joking with an auditorium audience, she disarms with humor. Her unique combination of being both gentle and feisty comes through over and over in the film.
The film also makes compelling use of stills and archival footage of Ina May speaking about her calling long before the US cesarean rate had climbed to one in three.
To a woman who has never imagined giving birth anywhere other than a hospital, it might seem striking to hear that 500 babies have been born in one house or that another house was for some years inhabited by 58 people who had some 28 babies in a special birthing room that got action about every six weeks. But the point of the film is perhaps to ask just why that is so striking.
Early in the film is a scene with a pregnant woman’s young daughter helping Ina May measure her belly. This happy collaboration hits home the question with which Ina May, speaking to an audience opens the film: “How did we get so afraid of birth?”
The scene with the daughter and her mother’s belly are like a lens focusing on the fact that women’s bodies give birth to babies who become people. In another scene, a younger Ina May in archival footage explains, “The sacrament of birth belongs with the family.”
Unlike the forceps delivery that Ina May was subjected to as a matter of course, birth does not have to be a medicalized trauma. The midwives of the Farm, including Pamela Hunt, whose story this is almost as much as it is Ina May’s, have always believed birth to be a natural process that only rarely needs much intervention.
The filmmakers establish the inevitability of this community’s genesis as part of a broader cultural movement and also allow its members to speak about its necessary unraveling a decade later and its eventual settling into a mecca for unmedicated birth. They let Ina May’s words in speeches, interviews and kitchen conversations inform us about the possible loss of the art of midwifery in the face of a climbing cesarean rate and school us on the sacredness of the act of ministering to birthing women.
On the subject of emotion and its impact on biology, there is also no shortage of discussion of the “sphincter law,” the idea that body openings tense and shrink in the face of fear, thus necessitating a calm atmosphere in the birthing room. Ina May’s 2011 book, Birth Matters explains in greater detail how the mammalian birth process works and assures human women and their partners that, as she says in the film, their bodies are “not lemons!” Like animals, they innately know how to do the work of birth.
And yet, the film emphasizes that birth is not a cold, clinical act. “In textbooks,” she says in the film, “there is nothing about the special energy” of birth, and nothing about kindness. What if that were the #1 rule, she wonders: “Be nice.” How much would that change delivery?
This film combines a rich history of the development of a community at a unique moment in history with a laying out of the current state of birth. It makes the case for a model of care that emphasizes connection and trust in a woman and in the natural process of birth.
Although the film opens by raising concerns about midwifery as a dying art and scenes of aging Steven remind viewers that nothing gold can stay. The lively conversations and footage of contemporary homebirths along with scenes from midwifery conferences and a Capitol Hill rally demonstrate that this story is not simply one of a grainy hippie past, but of today and always.
Jessica Claire Haney is a freelance writer, editor and tutor. Her writing has appeared in parenting publications and poetry journals. A former high school English teacher, Jessica is mother to a seven-year-old son and a toddler girl. She is passionate about holistic health and well-being and is a leader of a chapter of Holistic Moms Network.
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