Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives: film review

young Ina May Gaskin holding babyEric and I recently spent a couple evenings with the brand new documentary Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives. (I foggily remember a time pre-baby when we could watch an entire film in a single evening without ruining sleep forever! But I digress.) It’s good, and all you birthy folks will likely enjoy it. We both did.

The film is full of interesting people, and it’s fun to watch them talking. I particularly enjoyed hearing from the people who used to be Farm midwives but have since moved on, in part because they’re–unsurprisingly–a little more eyebrow-raising about the whole commune lifestyle than are those who stayed. And they’re funny.

But Gaskin herself is also personally likable and wry here, and she’s a fascinating figure. The sheer range of styles she wears is impressive and lovable! This woman is all over the fashion map.

The film includes quite a bit of historical footage and images from the Farm. This archival stuff is awesome.

However, the documentary often omits context. Perhaps this is an issue of audience: I certainly understood the context, because I already know a lot about childbirth, the history of midwifery and obstetrics, and US history. Maybe the movie is simply aimed at birth nerds like me. But I do think you’d need to be familiar with some of the issues in order to grasp certain scenes and exchanges: the risks involved in breech birth or shoulder dystocia, for instance, and what’s going on with the conversation about maternal mortality and Gaskin’s quilt. Eric asked me to clarify at that point, and he sorta is a birth nerd.

I should also note that Birth Story is very, very pro-Gaskin, to the point of not really mentioning that anyone disagrees with her or with this whole way of looking at birth. It is not a film that entertains criticisms, either angry ones that insist homebirth is inherently unsafe or more potential-ally ones about the gender essentialism that often characterizes Gaskin’s approach. (I mention the latter concern, though in passing, in my reviews of Gaskin’s books Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth and Birth Matters.)

The movie also glosses over conflict and disagreement within the communities it covers. The early-1980s disintegration of the Farm as it originally existed must have involved a lot of pain and conflict. There are certainly issues to be raised regarding the Farm and Stephen Gaskin (who hovers in the background of the film in ways I quite enjoyed, actually–it’s neat to see how he’s transitioned from famous countercultural spiritual leader at the center of attention to, well, Ina May Gaskin’s husband). Perhaps most significantly, midwives are represented as one big happy direct-entry family here: the very real disagreements amongst midwives over styles of practice, certification and licensing, education and training, etc. are replaced by an easy-feeling notion of sisterhood.

Two favorite parts: Eric just loved seeing footage of a vaginal breech birth, especially after catching our two head-first babies while I was in two quite different positions (resulting in different views for him as they came out!). My favorite moment in the whole film was when two ex-Farm midwives were laughing over leading Stephen by the hand to a birth because he “couldn’t see two inches in front of his face.” Why, the viewer asks? Well, apparently the good folks at the Farm went through a phase of believing it was more spiritually enlightened not to wear glasses. Just count yourself lucky you weren’t on the road with us back then, one of the midwives quips. Indeed.

Here’s the trailer:

[In the spirit of disclosure: I was sent a free copy of this film for review purposes.]

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