A Weekend with Ina May Gaskin: "Rock on"
**EDIT** Original post April 2013
What would you ask the world-renown “Mother of Midwifery” if you had the chance? I had been so excited to have the opportunity to spend some time with her, after having spent months planning with a wonderful group of people with the vision and commitment to bring her to our community in SWFL, that I nearly forgot to worry about what to actually saywhen I finally met her.
I was getting ready to pick her up from the airport, just Ina May, me, and my trusty lil' Prius. What will I say in the car? Oh gosh, what will I wear? We were heading straight from the airport to the venue hosting our VIP reception and screening of her new documentary Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and The Farm Midwives. What will she say? What if I say something stupid? This quickly followed by the thought that I will say something less than perfect at some point so I may as well get over it now, and enjoy myself instead.
I waited at the foot of the escalator inside the airport, seeing dozens of pairs of feet as they were the first thing that became visible under the ceiling overhang above me. Does that pair of boots belong to Ina May? Here comes the face...no. How about that pair of fuzzy flats? Could it be...no. Her flight had been delayed and we were already going to be beyond fashionably late to the reception. Maybe she didn't make her connection? Maybe I somehow missed her walk by? Finally, a small pair came into sight, brown Mary Janes, and I dismissed them for those of a child. Wrong! Here she was, a petite, strong woman with small feet and gray hair, wearing a brown straw hat and carrying a backpack. She feigned a smile after 12 hours of travel and we waited for her bag to arrive. I asked her if she’s ever been “spotted” in an airport, to which she replied no. Really? The world renown Ina May? My shock must have shown, and I asked her if she would welcome that sort of thing or if she would feel uncomfortable. She smiled a wide smile and said, “I’ll let you know if it happens.” I’m already in love with her spirit.
The weekend was a whirlwind of activity between the VIP reception and screening and the next day’s First Annual SWFL Green Family Expo where she was our special guest speaker. I shuttled her from activity to her B&B and back again, and reveled in this chance of a lifetime, this amazing opportunity to talk birth with one of my birth heroine’s, one of the reasons I became a doula. I learned that she checks in with her daughter when she arrives from a flight, just like any mama would. That she is happy when she is fed. That she likes IZZE drinks. That she's self-conscious about her hair (she really wanted to get a flat-iron to beat the Florida humidity, though she didn't know what to call it; we never did make it to the store...). During our rides we talked about fear’s role in today’s birth culture and that her antidote is love. Lots of love to laboring moms, given out freely and compassionately. She likes to make moms laugh, and believes that feeling good during labor is paramount. We talked about women’s different ways of knowing and from where they receive their knowledge, and I shared with her the book “Women's Ways Of Knowing: The Development Of Self, Voice, And Mind” by Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger and Tarule. I learned that Ina May’s knowledge comes most directly from her experience of being with laboring mothers (the definition of a midwife), and she has a ton of it.
During our car rides I shared with her that our local birth community is growing, and she asked with curiosity why that might be. I shared that we have a number of really wonderful new birth professionals eager to encourage change, with our new SWFL Birth Network chapter (www.swflbirthnetwork.com) as well as our new ICAN local chapter (www.ican-online.org), an explosion in the number of great doulas in our area, our steadfast dedicated midwives at our two local birth centers, and some other tuned in professionals dedicated to pregnant and post-partum moms. We both heartily agreed that we really need more men on our side to really make some changes in birth. I bragged about my husband and his love of birth, and his desire to begin prenatal birth counseling with couples in his own calling as a psychologist. As we talked about highlights from her film, she shared with me how some of the footage was filmed by her male friends in the 70's with huge camera's (not very subtle) and how that posed challenges. At some point I said how incredible this experience was and said, “Pinch me! It’s like I have Ina May sitting beside me in my car!” She literally did with an audible, “Pinch, pinch!” Did I mention that I’m in love with her spirit?
So while we agreed on having more men involved in birth change, we also discussed the insurance companies' roles as well as medical malpractice issues (and we threw in some discussion of our broken school system too, but that’s a story for another day). I told her about a conversation I recently had with a local birth mentor of mine who shared her opinion that any change we are looking to make to fix a broken U.S. birth system must start with the women; empowering women themselves to demand a better way to birth without such reliance on medical support; making the demand for out-of-hospital birth so high to create more demand for a larger natural birth community with more options for the women in our community. Ina May heartily agreed with my friend and said yes, the change begins with the women making informed birth decisions and getting rid of all that fear we’ve been conditioned to associate with birth. Yes. Read those last two sentences again and shout it out to all of your friends! Get yourself prepared for your birth, dedicate your childbearing year to preparation and creating your perfect birth team. It matters.
Back at the Green Family Expo she presented her Safe Motherhood Quilt (www.rememberthemothers.org) as I watched with tears springing to my eyes, as my husband sat by my side, my mom next to him, both of my children at my side. I hugged my daughter a little bit tighter and cried as my 8 year old son helped to hold the Quilt on the stage with the midwives and a few other curious children. Each square represents a mother who lost her life in the childbearing year, including the post-partum period. Many of these maternal deaths were a direct result from inductions and cesareans. The data is real; natural birth has better outcomes for mothers and babies, and the US with all of our technology and interventions is 50th is maternal mortality. The Huffington Post reported in 2012, “The United States spends $98 billion annually on hospitalization for pregnancy and childbirth, but the US maternal mortality rate has doubled in the past 25 years. The U.S. ranks 50th in the world for maternal mortality, meaning 49 countries were better at keeping new mothers alive”. I felt a rush of thankfulness at the events in my life that led me towards natural birth (a miscarried first baby who taught me there was another way for me to be cared for during pregnancy and birth), and pride that my children will make their own fully informed birth decisions having been exposed to normal birth their whole lives. A generational change starts with us, right here right now, teaching our children that birth is not a sickness. Sometimes cesarean birth becomes a necessity; respect for our bodies during the process by our care providers, however, is not optional. Cesarean rates of 40% are not acceptable, and as a result, our sisters are dying. Know your options, prepare yourself and dispel your fears. Cultural change is coming. Feel it.
My mom chit-chatted with Ina May before her talk on Saturday-What a moment for me, as my mom is the one who ultimately steered my on this path as a birth worker, always talking about her natural birth with me as beautiful and empowering, with my dad by her side (uncommon for 1977). I never feared birth, I had no reason to. She taught me, subconsciously, that birth was empowering and a rite of passage. So here my mom is talking with Ina May like they are old friends. I'm smiling from ear to ear :) My mom must have shared that my husband was born at home, because later in the car Ina May asked my husband about his own home birth which was uncommon in 1975. It was one of the 3 questions I can recall her initiating, and as he gave her the details she listened carefully. Something clicked for me. Mike was born at home and he's just as into birth as I am. Who knew that our very first moments of life might shape where our lives are leading today? What does that mean for how we share our birth stories (not outcomes) with our own sons and daughters?
The weekend concluded with a small farewell dinner with a group of birth professionals and advocates from our community. Ina May was interested in discussing with Dr. George his take on the stories of OB's who have performed cesareans on mothers who were not even pregnant. (He was appalled and highly concerned, to say the least). During the drive home, in an effort to connect with one of her passions, I shared a “sphincter law” story from Milton Erickson, psychiatrist and hypnotist, that I learned along my path as a Birthing From Within mentor (there was the stupid thing I said that I earlier worried about!). Just before my husband and I walked her to her door for the last time, I asked for one last book signing of her trip, and thanked her on behalf of our community. I told her that she's really inspired so many and our birth community came together in honor of her, which is a giant step in the right direction. I said maybe, just maybe, this is what we needed to begin to band together to impart a larger change for the birthing women in our community, to begin to change our culture and get back to the basics of normal birth. She got one of her rare, true grins and said, "Well, let's rock on! Let's rock on." Here's an image of my well-loved copy of Spiritual Midwifery and her generous words of love. Rock on.