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Arms Wide Open: A Midwife's Journey
Synopses & Reviews
All the way down Route 119, past Gandeeville, Snake Hollow, and Wolf Run, I’m thinking about the baby that died.
I wasn’t there, didn’t even know the family. It happened a few days ago, with another midwife, at a homebirth in Hardy County, on summer solstice, the longest day of the year.
Word on the informal West Virginia midwives’ hotline is that the baby’s shoulders got stuck, a grave emergency. The midwife, Jade, tried everything, all the maneuvers she’d studied in textbooks and the special tricks she’d learned from other practitioners, but nothing worked. They rushed, by ambulance, to the nearest hospital thirty miles away, with the baby’s blue head sticking out of the mother, but it was too late. Of course it was too late.
Homebirth midwives in West Virginia are legal, but just barely, and there’s no doubt the state coroner’s office will investigate. Jade is afraid.
We are all afraid.
We whip around another corner and I lose my supper out the side window. Who do I think I am taking on this kind of responsibility? Why am I risking my life to get to a homebirth of people I hardly know? What am I doing in this Ford station wagon being whipped back and forth as we careen through the night?
I awake sick with grief, my heart pounding. I’m lying on a pillow-padded king-size bed with floral sheets. A man I hardly recognize sleeps next to me. This is Tom, I remind myself: my husband of thirty-three years, a person whose body and mind are as familiar to me as my own. I prop myself up on an elbow, inspecting his broad shoulders, smooth face, straight nose and full lips, his short silver hair, in the silver moonlight. One hairy leg sticks out of the covers. One arm, with the wide hand and sensitive surgeon’s fingers, circles his pillow. It’s 3:45, summer solstice morning.
When I rise and pull on my long white terry robe, I stand for a moment, getting my bearings, then open the bedroom door that squeaks and pad across the carpeted living room. Outside the tall corner windows, the trees dance in the dark. Once I called myself Trillium Stone. That was my pen name when I lived in rural communes, wrote for our political rag, The Wild Currents, taught the first natural-childbirth classes, and started doing homebirths.
Now I’m a nurse-midwife with short graying hair, who no longer delivers babies, living with an ob-gyn in this lakefront home, so far from where I ever thought I would live, so far from where I ever wanted to live. I search the photographs on the piano of my three handsome sons, now men. Do I wake? Do I sleep?
OK, my life has been a wild ride, I’ll admit it, but the image of this hippie chick lurching through the night, on her way to a homebirth, with only a thick copy of Varney’s Midwifery as a guide, disturbs me. What did she think she was doing? Where did she get the balls?
On the highest shelf in the back of our clothes closet, a stack of journals gathers dust. For seventeen years I carried them in a backpack from commune to commune. They’ve moved with me across the country three times, through midwifery school, Tom’s medical school and his ob-gyn residency. I can’t get the diaries out of my mind, a mute witness to my life . . .
I slip back through the bedroom. Tom snores on. By the dim closet light, I find a stepladder and struggle to bring down the shabby container. The journals have been closed for twenty-five years; pages stick together and smell faintly of mold.
I’m on a mission now, trying to understand, but I’m surprised to find that I started each entry with only the day and the month, no year. This is going to take a while. It seems I never expected anyone would want to reconstruct my life, not even me. I’m an archaeologist digging through my own past.
With narrowed eyes, I flip through notebook after notebook, daring that flower child to show her face. When the alarm goes off, Tom, dressed in blue scrubs for the OR, finds me asleep in the white canvas chair, with a red journal open, over my heart.
"Harman's first memoir, The Blue Cotton Gown, revealed the struggles of a modern midwife who began with no training but eventually became a certified nurse-midwife (CNM) in practice with her OB-Gyn husband, Tom. Her wonderful second memoir is ostensibly about discovering her calling as a midwife, but it is just as much about her life-with lovers and friends, in communes, raising her young children, struggling, flawed, and free. While she may have been disaffected by the times (sections 1 and 2 span the 1970s), she's not bitter, or hardly even negative. It's a tough line to toe. Songs well-worn in our collective memory punctuate chapters, profound moments, and the many births that Harman recounts. The facts of her subsistence life in Appalachia both push the reader away and draw them in (as when the almost unbearable cold of winter makes sap break in the trees so that the forest sounds like a symphony of marimba music). Since she has drawn from her color-coded, time-stamped journals ('From the Red Journal: Little Cabin in the North Woods, 1971-1972, Fall,' for instance), there are more honest, revealing moments here than in many memoirs. Harman, whose prose is sparse but not simple, covers a span of decades, deftly revealing her own youthful struggles with identity through the children we witnessed her raising earlier in her book, revealing, in short, a full life. "
Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
A midwife’s memoir of living free and naturally against all odds
In her first, highly praised memoir, The Blue Cotton Gown, Patricia Harman recounted the stories that patients brought into her exam room, and her own story of struggling to help women as a nurse-midwife. In Arms Wide Open, a prequel to that acclaimed book, Patsy tells the story of growing up during one of the most turbulent times in America and becoming an idealistic home-birth midwife.
Drawing heavily on her journals, Patsy reaches back to tell us how she first learned to deliver babies, and digs even deeper down to tell us of her youthful experiments in living a fully sustainable and natural life. In the 1960s and ’70s, she spent over a decade with her first partner living in rural areas in Minnesota and Ohio before eventually purchasing a farm with Tom Harman in West Virginia.
Patsy recounts the hardships and the freedom of living in the wilds of Minnesota in a log cabin she and her lover built with their own hands, the only running water hauled from nearby streams. She describes long treks in the snow with her infant son strapped to her chest, setting up beehives for honey, and giving chase to a thieving bear. Eventually, yearning for more connection, Patsy moves into communal life, forming alliances with the eco-minded and antiwar counterculture that was both loved and reviled in those days.
As a young mother on the commune, Patsy offers her personal experience and assistance to other women who, like her, wish to have safe, natural births. In time, she becomes a self-taught midwife, delivering babies in cabins and on farms, sometimes in harrowing circumstances. But her passion for the work drives her to want to help more, to do more. And so she begins the professional training that will fully accredit her to assist in childbirth. In a final section, Patsy takes us into the present day, facing the challenges of running a women’s health clinic with her husband, mothering adult sons, and holding true to their principles and passions in the twenty-first century
More than a personal memoir, Arms Wide Open paints a portrait of a generation’s desperate struggle to realize their ideals as they battled against the elements and against the conservative society that labeled them “hippies” and belittled their ecological and pacifist beliefs. Her memoir is a beautiful recollection of the convictions of the baby boom generation, a riveting account of surviving in the wild, and a triumphant story of living responsibly in our over-consuming society.
About the Author
Patricia Harman, CNM, has published frequently in the Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health. The Blue Cotton Gown (Beacon / 7291-2 / $16.00 pb) was published in 2008. Harman and her husband, Tom, run a women’s health clinic near Morgantown, West Virginia.
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