Forty years ago, Ina May Gaskin set out to transform the then-standard birthing experience at hospitals where doctors often used forceps and husbands were not allowed in the room. She and her friends set up a self-sustaining community in Tennessee called “The Farm,” so Ina May could teach women to deliver each other’s babies using age-old midwifery practices. As word of their social experiment spread, the community created a model of care for women and babies that changed a generation’s approach to childbirth.
An award-winning documentary about Ina May’s work in maternal health — Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives — was released last April. (You can access the digital download of the film on birthstorymovie.com as well as on iTunes.) The directors describe the film beautifully:
“Today, as nearly one third of all US babies are born via C-section, [Ina May] fights to preserve her community’s hard-won knowledge. With incredible access to the midwives’ archival video collection, the film not only captures the unique sisterhood at The Farm Clinic — from its heyday into the present — but shows childbirth the way most people have never seen it — unadorned, unabashed, and awe-inspiring.”
We had a chance to interview Mary Wigmore who co-directed the film, along with Sara Lamm.
“We hope that the film helps lessen the cultural fear around the topic of childbirth, that it inspires women to connect with the awe-inspiring power of their bodies, and that it helps all of us think about what we can achieve when we work together in a community,” Mary says.
Here, Mary shares what she learned while making this inspiring documentary.
A Conversation with Mary Wigmore
Honest: How did you hear about Ina May Gaskin?
Mary Wigmore: My friend and co-director Sara Lamm gave me a copy of Spiritual Midwifery when I was pregnant with my son. I loved the photographs of the pregnant hippies and their positive birth stories. I found the book made me feel excited and less afraid. I love that this book has been passed from woman to woman over and over again for nearly 40 years. Sara and I wanted to know more about Ina May and the Farm Midwives and we were surprised to find a film did not already exist so we decided to make it.
H: How long did it take to make this film?
MW: It took about 3 and half years. A true labor of love.
H: Do people live on “The Farm” or is it just a midwifery center?
MW: There are about 200 residents living on The Farm now. People come from all over the world to study with The Farm Midwives at The Midwifery Center and some travel there to have their babies with them of course.
H: What surprised you most while learning her story and making this film?
MW: I think what surprised me most was attending a birth. It was so sweet and so calm and I never imagined that a baby could be born like that. Truly beautiful and something I hope to witness again. Other surprises…Ina May is really funny, a great cook, speaks six languages, makes her own clothes and she’s also a technophile!
H: What is something every woman should know about childbirth?
MW: One of the most valuable things I learned is how important it is to surround yourself with a loving, supportive team of caregivers. Oxytocin, the love hormone, is released while laboring. Try to enjoy it!
H: What did Ina May offer at The Farm Clinic that typical hospitals of the time did not offer?
MW: In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, husbands were not allowed in the hospital room with their laboring wives. At The Farm, the partners were and still are an essential part of the support team for the mother.
The midwives create a loving supportive environment for the mother. They encourage her to let her body to do what it was built for. Fear is not part of the equation.
We wanted to show the midwife model of care so people can actually see and be inspired by the work these women do… even in very complicated births, they are so calm and sweet.
We want the film to be useful to anyone caring for pregnant women — doctors, childbirth educators, doulas, and families in any setting – home, birth center, or hospital.
H: How has your view of childbirth changed after making this film?
MW: I think of childbirth as a normal bodily function rather than a medical event now. I am so impressed by women’s bodies and what they can do. (Birth Story offers an opportunity to see birth with minimal intervention and unmedicated.)
H: How does Ina May feel about modern child birthing methods used by hospitals? Do women in labor on The Farm rely on hospital care if they encounter medical emergencies?
MW: Ina May has an ongoing and very respectful collaboration with many doctors who have taught her through the years. And she has a healthy respect for technology. The Farm also has a great relationship with a hospital that’s just 15 minutes away. They transfer immediately if necessary.
As far as improving the child birthing experience in hospitals, I would say Ina May would like to see more midwives in US hospitals, and wants to lessen the culture of fear and unnecessary interventions.
H: What do you think is the message Ina May wants to pass on to future generations?
1. Our bodies were built for birthing babies! “Your body is not a lemon!”
2. We need more midwives assisting births in the US.
3. When women work together, we can change the world.
Ina May inspires us because of her care and compassion for women. Her natural approach to pregnancy and childbirth has made her a thought leader in maternal health and midwifery. You can read more about Ina May here, and The Farm here.
Tell us about your birth experience and what amazed you about the process.