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The Star: Meeting legendary midwife Ina May Gaskin

The Star: Meeting legendary midwife Ina May Gaskin

March 30, 2011

From Catherine Porter at The Star:

I chatted a spell about giving birth to Ina May Gaskin, before getting to the orgasm.

It wasn’t exactly foreplay, the grand dame of North American midwives sitting with me at her friend’s west end kitchen table, talk drifting from forceps babies to the first labour she attended in the back of a school bus, which at the time was her home.

But our conversation was kind and calm — the two ingredients she says are necessary for a joyous, even ecstatic natural labour.

“She looked so gorgeous. Of course she had an orgasm. She was ah, ah ah ah. . . that kind of thing,” Gaskin said, describing that inaugural labour. “I didn’t see a woman who was scared. I didn’t see a woman who was in pain. We were all ecstatic.”

Gaskin is a legend among midwives. Americans often credit her for resuscitating the profession there. She is lauded for inspiring Canadian midwives to become a recognized, legislated profession. In 1976, she published Spiritual Midwifery, which recounted the natural childbirths she had attended at The Farm, a hippie commune she and her husband Stephen founded in southern Tennessee a few years earlier. There, she worked to correct the brutality of her own first labour in a hospital — strapped to the bed, a needle forced into her back, forceps gripping the emerging head of her daughter, who was whisked away for a full day.

“The doctor said, since she was my first, I’d cause brain damage to the baby if I delivered her naturally,” she said. “How likely is it that out of 5,000 species of mammals, we are the only ones too screwed up to give birth?”

She learned by doing and listening to her intuition, she says. The results spoke for themselves. Of the first 2,200 babies she and her partners delivered, only a dozen required forceps or a vacuum. At a time when one quarter of American babies arrived through surgery, they welcomed 186 babies naturally before having to rush to the hospital for their first caesarean.

Her tools were kindness, snacks, outdoor walks, laughter, reassuring words, maybe a little foreplay from a husband to stimulate some oxytocin, the love-hormone that stimulates “rushes,” Gaskin’s word for contractions.

Women, she proved, were not cursed to painful, clinical labours. Delivering a baby could be spiritual and pleasurable.

I read Gaskin’s second book, Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, while pregnant with my second baby. It was an antidote to What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Instead of cataloguing every gruesome doomsday scenario, here I found women’s stories of difficult but joyous, drug-free labours. On Page 163, there is a photo of ‘Therese’ — head thrown back, delirious smile, the head and face of her baby emerging from her vagina.

“My job is not to make you want to have a home birth,” Gaskin says of her books. “I want you to be less scared of birth.”

Her theory: A woman scared to give birth hums with adrenaline, which signals the cervix to tighten, while a little French kissing will have the opposite effect.

“The elephant in the room is denying that birth is sexual, when it occurs using our sexual organs,” says Gaskin, now 71.

Gaskin is in Toronto to lecture at a birthing conference on Saturday and to promote her latest book, Birth Matters: A Midwife’s Manifesta. It covers a lot of the same ground, but focuses sharply on the ever-swelling rates of both caesarean sections (32.3 per cent) and maternal mortality in the United States, now higher than all of Western Europe, and even Bosnia at 17 per 100,000 births. Canada, by comparison, has remained stable at 7. She pegs both to “hyper-medicalization.”

“It’s a real pathological level when you frighten women into surgery,” she says.

I read it this week at night after tucking in my two kids — both born naturally. They were delivered in hospitals by midwives. Here’s another thing we’ve gotten right here in Canada. While the political battle between midwives and obstetricians drones on across the border and it’s still illegal to give birth at home in many states, 500 registered midwives in Ontario deliver babies, sometimes in concert with obstetricians. We have achieved Gaskin’s dream.

“I’ve often thought, we should come to Canada,” she says, laughing. “But we’re too old. You wouldn’t take us.”

After finishing her book, I dug through my cluttered bedside table and fished out an old diary. There I found my account of Noah’s birth. He was a wrestler of a baby at 10 pounds. Just before I started pushing, I floated in a hospital Jacuzzi bath, my body rising and falling like spaghetti.

“I can truthfully say I enjoyed this,” I wrote. “The contractions felt deep, but fleeting and I simply let them ride through me without resistance.”

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