Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives

Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore’s documentary warmly recounts how a busload of hippie moms reframed the culture of American childbirth. Their matron saint was the woman now known as the world’s most famous midwife, Ina May Gaskin, who taught herself about natural birth when grounded knowledge and sisterly support seemed preferable to chilly rooms presided over by forceps-wielding masked men. Ina and husband Stephen got together in the spirit-seeking glory days of the Haight; when that got too expensive, they set up a commune in rural Tennessee. Leaving alone one woman’s cryptic comment that membership there meant signing off on Stephen as “spiritual leader,” and that he proved “fallible,” Lamm and Wigmore stay their course of gently reverential Gaskin appreciation. More important is that they’re less hesitant to show what birth really looks like, in all its visceral glory. The anecdotal approach does have some risks, like an implication that the main reason to think twice about rising C-section rates is that they threaten midwives’ livelihoods. What Ina May very reasonably resists is “a scheduled cesarean for no good reason,” in the same pragmatic way she resists labor induction, on the grounds that “farmers would never do that with valuable animals.” Meanwhile, a droll peek at the index of a widely used obstetrics manual reveals “Chauvinism, male, voluminous amounts, 1-1102,” and Lamm and Wigmore close their case for practical womanly wisdom.