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Natural Birth in the New America

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Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery and the back-to-the-land movement.

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Illustration by Jason Arias.

Hershe was having a baby. Pancake was the father.

This was 1971. Hershe (“like the syrup”) and Pancake were living in Vermont. They’d both ended up there more or less by accident, but they liked living amid the woods and fields, so different from the suburbs in which they’d each been raised. For a while, Hershe and Pancake had stayed at a commune, where they’d helped the group finish their frantic push to put up a house before winter—they’d succeed, just days before a blizzard dropped three feet of snow.

But the commune’s open sleeping loft was crowded and hectic. They wanted someplace quieter and more private to live, especially now that they had a baby on the way.

Some nearby friends, newcomers like themselves, had decided to raise a crop of organic carrots using only horse-drawn equipment, and had found themselves with more work than they could handle. Hershe and Pancake had agreed to help out in exchange for pitching their tepee near a small stream in a wooded corner of the property. Pancake liked the quiet and tranquility of living under the trees, where you could wake up to the sound of birds and meditate undisturbed by car horns or yelling; for Hershe, the appeal lay more in the farmwork itself, in learning how to drive the horse wagon and milk the goats, and in feeling herself grow stronger every day, her hands dirty with the work of shelter, food, and survival.

Though Hershe and Pancake didn’t fully realize it at the time, they were part of a major, demographic shift then taking place all across the country: the back-to-the-land movement. Starting in the late 1960s and continuing through the 70s, thousands of young people—mostly white, well educated, and from middle-class or affluent families—left behind the cities and suburbs in favor of a life in the country. From Maine to Oregon and from Minnesota to New Mexico, back-to-the-landers were building log cabins and adobe-brick hogans, and teaching themselves to chop firewood, bake bread, and can their homegrown organic vegetables. By abandoning the trappings of their own Eisenhower-era childhoods, they hoped to reject not only lawns, cul-de-sacs, and kitchen appliances, but also their parents’ abstract, soul-deadening work, and participation in the systems they felt had led directly to racism and war. To a privileged generation exhausted by shouting no to every aspect of the American society they were raised to inherit, rural life represented a way to say yes.

How had the doctor become more central to healthy birthing than the mother herself?

Among these back-to-the-landers were my own parents, Larry and Judy, busily constructing a geodesic dome just over the hill from Hershe and Pancake’s tepee.

For women like Hershe and my mother, the decision to undertake an austere, anachronistic way of life in a remote setting presented unique opportunities and challenges—in particular, childbirth. All across the country, women living on back roads and on isolated mountaintops had begun giving birth at home. Their decision to eschew hospitals and doctors in favor of a ‘return’ to premedicalized birthing was entirely consistent with the wider social revolution underway, another example of rejecting the practices of the postwar society that assumed everything man-made was superior to everything naturally occurring. Many elements of Western medicine came under suspicion during this period, but none more so than modern obstetrics. How had the doctor become more central to healthy birthing than the mother herself? The decision by so many women in the 1970s to seek out an alternate birth experience would have huge implications for themselves, for their babies, and, as it turned out, for generations of women who followed.

Hershe was no different. As soon as she realized she was pregnant, she knew one thing for sure: this baby would be born at home, in the tepee, in the woods.

My mother and Hershe hadn’t even met yet, but it was a decision that would forever change my mother’s life.

*                      *                     *

Hershe’s autobiography would start, “My grandfather wanted me to believe in God, and my father wanted me to believe in country. But I wanted to believe in myself.”

In 1967, at eighteen, Hershe left home for good. She headed straight for San Francisco and the Summer of Love. Within a few days of arriving, she was living with an ever-shifting group of kids in a second-floor apartment in the Haight. Downstairs lived a knot of speed dealers and junkies whose fights sometimes spilled into the street; the people on the top floor did yoga and meditated all day and never ate meat or did drugs not found in nature. Everyone on Hershe’s floor was into the music scene. One of her new roommates was a Brit who limped from childhood polio and worked as an MC at the Avalon Ballroom. He could get Hershe in for free on Wednesdays, when the bands rehearsed. She saw every show she could: Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, the Dead, Steve Miller, Country Joe and the Fish. To support herself, she rented a sewing machine for twenty-five dollars a month and made clothes for bands like Big Brother and the Holding Company: loose shirts and bellbottoms sewn from the batiks and Indian prints she bought cheap from the neighborhood’s import stores.

For a while the Haight was heaven. But pretty soon it began to seem like everyone had crabs, or the clap, or was miserably pregnant. The teenyboppers crashing in Hershe’s apartment were getting ever younger and more helplessly stoned.

After a truck driver who’d picked her up hitchhiking propositioned her aggressively, forcing her to leap out at a traffic light, abandoning her purse with her wallet and I.D., she decided she’d had enough. “I’ve got to get out of here,” Hershe thought. She couldn’t stop thinking about redwoods. She wanted to sleep under ancient trees as tall as the sky.

Her boldness carried her into whatever room she felt like entering, and carried her out again if she didn’t like what she found there.

In Santa Cruz, she stayed at a commune called Holiday, where residents hewed chunks of sandstone from the riverbank and sold carvings to try and support themselves. When she got tired of that scene, she caught a ride to the next place on the counterculture network. All of her belongings fit in one backpack. She’d grown up in a military family, and now she found that moving between crash pads and communes every few months wasn’t that different from moving between army bases, as she had throughout her childhood. The difference was that every move now was her own decision, made for her own reasons. She had never been shy, never worried about talking to new people, about making or keeping friends. Some man or other was always offering her a ride or a place to stay. She chose as she pleased whose invitation to accept and on what terms. Her boldness carried her into whatever room she felt like entering, and carried her out again if she didn’t like what she found there.

One day, she ran into a friend who was headed east, to Maine, to join a new commune that was starting up. There was space in the van. Without thinking twice, Hershe climbed in. But the trip turned out to be a drag: the driver was a crazy man who would only stop for gas, ignoring even the most urgent requests for bathroom breaks. By the time they hit the East Coast, Hershe never wanted to see him again, never mind join a community with him. When they made a short detour into Vermont, to a music festival on the campus of Goddard College, she hopped out and did not look back.

She met Pancake that afternoon. Wandering around the campus, she saw a tall, skinny boy sitting on the grass, playing an unplugged electric guitar. He had long, dark hair and an appealing, shaggy, Frank Zappa look. The brim of his fedora was covered in peanut butter.

“Why do you have peanut butter on your hat?” she asked. He looked up at her standing above him: tall and strong, with high cheekbones and a waterfall of blonde hair, like a hippie version of an all-American cheerleader. He met her direct gaze with a warm, goofy grin. “It’s in case I get hungry,” he said. “I have a very strange stomach and I have to be prepared for starving.” She laughed and sat down. He had been kicked out of college in Boston for a midnight caper that involved traversing a rooftop to the girls’ dorm, and now he and some friends were spending the summer traveling between music festivals in a VW bus with “Free Timothy Leary” painted on the flank. Hershe thought he was the funniest, smartest person she’d ever met. A few days later, when his bus headed off for the next adventure, Hershe was aboard.

Their travels deposited them at a series of communes in Vermont. At the first of these, a working farm, they made room for themselves by sleeping in the barn. It was the commune’s kids, ever curious, who had come up with her new name. Nothing goes better with Pancake than syrup, they decided. And what better syrup than Hershey’s? She shrugged, but it became the name she answered to for the next several decades.

And the commune was also the place where she’d finally found a way to settle down. Farmwork had a steep learning curve, but she found it exciting. The experience of quickly mastering skills she’d been raised to consider beyond or below her abilities gave her a new focus. The boldness that had led her through years of restless adventures now coalesced into a new kind of confidence: independence could mean not just coming and going at whim, but also providing completely for herself, with her own hands.

That sense of satisfaction had not faded when she and Pancake began working on their friends’ carrot farm and setting up their new home.

Inside, the tepee felt pleasantly spacious. The circle comfortably encompassed a double bed up on a platform, plus a small wood-burning cookstove. For the floor, Hershe—encumbered by her growing belly—had carefully spread a layer of hay over the open ground, then laid down another sheet of plastic, then a thick layer of rugs. Under bare feet, each step gave slightly with a cozy softness.

By the time the nights turned frosty, then bitter, Hershe had prepared the space to her satisfaction. In exchange for their ongoing help with the carrots and workhorses, the farm’s owners, Peg and Eliot, had given Hershe and Pancake a set of excellent down sleeping bags that zipped together into one. On twenty-below nights, the tepee wasn’t exactly warm by central-heating standards, but it was no chillier than Peg and Eliot’s nineteenth-century farmhouse, and far less drafty.

To pass the time that winter, Hershe and Peg had decided to host a series of what they were calling “gourmet international meals.” In late January, they invited everyone they could think of to come over for a Mexican feast.

The afternoon of the party, it started to snow. It looked like it might turn into a blizzard, but the women decided to go ahead with the party anyway. That afternoon, Peg was busy in the kitchen when Hershe stepped through the door, eyes aglow. She had begun labor. Some guests, hoping to beat the snow, had already begun to arrive. There was no need to cancel the party, Hershe assured Peg. They could just move it to the tepee.

The summer before, when Hershe and Pancake were living over at the commune, one of the women there had given birth. Hershe, like many others present that night, had found the experience beautiful and intense. Loraine had gone into labor after dinner, a fact she announced by walking across the fields, chanting, to the “birthing hut” the group had built for her a few weeks earlier. Her commune mates, along with the others who arrived from the wider communal network to help celebrate, had continued singing and chanting ceaselessly through the night. The baby had been born at dawn, with no complications, just as the birds began to sing.

This birth could be just as festive and celebratory as that one, Hershe felt sure. Who cared about the weather? Anyone who wanted was welcome to come down to the tepee and join them.

By good luck or providence, one of the early-arriving guests happened to be the person Hershe had selected as a midwife, a friend with bright red hair and beard who’d recently returned from a tour in Vietnam as a medic. The only birth he’d attended before was his own child’s, but Hershe felt confident in his abilities. Plus, he was really just there as backup. Hershe had read every book she could find on natural childbirth. Many of these emphasized that it was the laboring mother, and not the doctor, who was chiefly responsible for bringing the baby into the world.

The hospital system, so entirely sure of itself, left no room for a woman to obey her own instincts during labor or even to request whomever she wanted as support.

As Hershe and many other women saw it, the best way to protest the hospitals and doctors that seemed to have replaced the body’s every natural labor and birth process with systems of their own devising was simply to reject them outright. Many of their own mothers had been put into a ‘twilight sleep’ with scopolamine which prevented them from remembering anything about the birth. When they came to, it was hours before they were allowed to hold their babies, and then only for a few minutes before the nurses took them away to feed them. The hospital system, so entirely sure of itself, left no room for a woman to obey her own instincts during labor or even to request whomever she wanted as support. Stories floated around the counterculture about couples who tried to thwart a hospital’s policy of barring fathers from the delivery room by handcuffing themselves together. For Hershe and so many others, everything about this felt terribly wrong.

Hershe was strong and healthy and unafraid of pain or hard work. If anyone could handle natural childbirth, she could. She left Peg’s kitchen and walked back to the tepee through the falling snow to continue her preparations.

One of the books had recommended keeping hard candy on hand for the mother to suck on if her mouth got dry during labor. Hershe had decided to replace the hard candy with homemade maple fudge. She spent the rest of the afternoon cooking energetically between contractions, finishing the huge batch of potato salad she’d intended for the party’s potluck, and boiling syrup and cream together for fudge.

By the time my mother, Judy, made her way across the dark field and ducked through the tepee’s blanket door several hours later, she found a more hushed scene. Hershe had moved to the bed and was moaning rhythmically. She was completely naked, but didn’t seem to notice either the cold or the half-dozen people now crowding the tiny space. Even those standing right next to the wood stove had their coats on. The hurricane lanterns hanging from the support poles bathed everything in a yellowish glow. People had stopped bothering to kick snow off their boots and the normally pristine rugs were now muddy and sodden. The smell of snowmelt mingled with the scents of boiled syrup, wood smoke, and kerosene.

She could not stop calculating and recalculating: the tepee sat half a mile off the road, which was itself twenty-five miles from the nearest medical facility.

From her spot on the floor, Peg watched Hershe labor with a mix of awe and fascination. She’d never seen real childbirth before—she found it messier and more intense, but also more profoundly moving, than she had imagined.

Next to Peg, the cold seeping through the tepee’s walls and her layers of parka and sweater, my mother was biting back waves of terror. She could not stop calculating and recalculating: the tepee sat half a mile off the road, which was itself twenty-five miles from the nearest medical facility. It would take an ambulance forty-five minutes to arrive and the same to get back to the hospital—longer if the roads hadn’t been well cleared. Hershe’s labor seemed to be going well, as far as Judy could tell, but what if something went wrong? Who here had enough experience to know what to do? Her own sense of helplessness frightened her.

Years later, Judy would look back on her night in the tepee as a turning point in her life. Her hours of crouching, cold and afraid, left her determined never again to find herself in a medical situation feeling so utterly helpless.

Judy shared Hershe’s critique of the way that hospitals and doctors disempowered women and made mothers passive participants in the essential act of birth. But she had also been in the Peace Corps, and had lived in places where access to even just a little more Western medicine and hospital support would save thousands of lives. She was not prepared to reject all medical expertise; she just wanted a more flexible, more woman-centric version of it.

If women like Hershe were going to walk away from hospital births and trust themselves and nature to what felt to Judy like an extreme degree, they’d need better, more sympathetic sources of medical support and expertise than were currently available. And maybe, Judy thought, she should be one of the people to provide it.

*                      *                     *

All over the country, at almost the same moment, other women were having similar experiences with far-flung home births—in snowed-in cabins, on high desert mesas, in remote canyons—and coming to conclusions very similar to Judy’s—most famously and influentially, Ina May Gaskin.

Ina May, as she is known in her best-selling guides to natural labor, childbirth, and nursing, was teaching English in San Francisco in 1968, having recently returned from the Peace Corps in Malaysia. Around that time, a Korean War vet named Stephen Gaskin had begun delivering spiritually themed lectures on Monday nights at San Francisco’s Free University. His lectures incorporated a wide range of traditions and theologies into mesmerizing, free-form sermons that soon began drawing crowds in the thousands. Ina May and her husband became regular attendees, and eventually joined Gaskin and his wife in what they called a “four marriage,” an arrangement that was eventually pared down to just Stephen and Ina May.

When Stephen decided to take his classes on a countrywide lecture circuit, several hundred of his devotees followed in a caravan of painted school buses and converted bread trucks. One night, after the caravan had stopped to rest near Evanston, Illinois, a man appeared at the Gaskins’ door. His wife had gone into labor and he was looking for help.

Ina May, like a number of women in the caravan, was pregnant herself. She had been talking to many of the others about their previous birth experiences. Her own first birth had been traumatic. She had entered the hospital confident and feeling strong, but the doctors had given her an episiotomy and used forceps without talking to her about it, which had left her feeling assaulted and shaken. During their long hours on the road, she and the other women had begun reading the best source they could find about natural childbirth, a Mexican midwifery manual.

That night, she watched as Stephen talked to the worried father-to-be with confidence, but she knew him well enough to see that, despite his experience as a medic in Korea, he didn’t really know what to do. “I’ll go,” she offered.

As she sat with the woman laboring on a bed in the back of the bus, the manual’s advice helped Ina May to understand what was happening. But, out of superstition, she and the other women had skipped a chapter about what to do if the baby wasn’t breathing. When this baby emerged, blue-faced and still, she suddenly realized with horror how little she really knew.

Someone raced to fetch Stephen. He arrived in time to give the baby mouth-to-mouth. It worked. Just a few minutes later, the baby was wailing and ruddy, safe in her mother’s arms.

For some in the group, this had been nothing short of a miracle performed by their leader and spiritual teacher. But Ina May knew how much they owed to pure luck. For her, it had been a wake-up call.

Ina May knew this would not be the last time her group would face this kind of crisis. She felt that it would be irresponsible to continue supporting home births, as she planned to do, without gaining the serious expertise needed to keep mothers and babies safe. And so she started collecting and learning to use basic obstetric equipment as she and many of her commune sisters began reading everything they could find. By the time the lecture tour ended, eleven babies had been born.

For the rest of the five-month lecture tour, all of the babies but one were born safe. Ina May’s own son was born, two months prematurely, at just three pounds. He did not survive.

In 1971, Stephen and the rest of the group decided to move from San Francisco to the Tennessee acres that would become The Farm—a still-thriving community over forty years later. From the start, it was clear that the group’s mission would include a serious commitment to natural childbirth and midwifery. The birthing house was one of the first buildings they constructed. Between 1971 and 1980, The Farm’s midwives delivered more than two thousand babies; nearly one thousand more have been born there since.

As Ina May threw herself into learning, she talked both to sympathetic and unsympathetic obstetricians, and to midwives from every background she could find. But mainly, as she put it, “I learned by listening to women.” She noticed which conditions and experiences helped laboring women to relax and feel confident, and paid close attention to the emotional and psychological elements of labor that conventional medicine most often ignored.

Over the next decades, Ina May, a former academic, began to amass a spectacular library. She especially valued obstetrics manuals from the nineteenth century, whose authors had grown up on farms and had lots of practice confidently resolving complicated births on creatures other than humans.

But one of the Farm midwives’ greatest sources of knowledge, as for so many back-to-the-landers, turned out to be their own neighbors: the Ethridge Amish community. Midwives there had refined their own home-birth practices over several centuries, under the same no-electricity, no-running-water conditions that felt so novel to the communards. The intensive collaboration between the two groups of midwives continues to this day.

This proximity to a thriving home-birth tradition, plus The Farm’s huge numbers, both of birthing women and interested midwives, made it an ideal learning environment for Ina May and her commune sisters. What made Ina May the most famous midwife in the world, though, was not just her rapidly growing expertise and ability to share this knowledge with others, but also a stroke of simple good timing.

Around 1975, one Farm member received an inheritance, and the group decided to invest it in the means for a cash sideline: a printing press. This appealed to them as a method of producing salable materials (books) with relatively little overhead. Plus, it offered the group and its effusive leader an outlet for culture-disrupting ideas. Now all they needed was material. Ina May decided to turn some of what she and the other midwives had learned into a book. Spiritual Midwifery, a collection of findings, observations, personal stories, and advice was exactly the text thousands of readers had been hungering for. The book, now in its fourth edition, has remained steadily in print since its first run in 1975. It has been translated into twelve languages.

While Spiritual Midwifery helped spur the natural childbirth and home birth movements by bringing the lessons and insights of the Farm’s midwives to several generations of readers, its authors’ approach is extremely typical of their generation: rebellion expressed through thoughtful, creative problem-solving. At the same moment that they said no to the systems they felt had failed them, they had the confidence to seek out resources that let them stay safe and healthy—that let them say yes. As Ina May and many other, less famous but equally committed, women around the country allowed themselves to discover and rediscover practices for safe, mother-and-baby-centric births, they opened the door for more flexible hospital birthing-room policies and commitment to breast-feeding and lactation support; they encouraged the establishment of birthing centers and midwife training programs; and they helped pave the way for today’s home birth and doula movements. Today, even in small ways, their influence is felt by parents and babies across the country—no matter where the birth itself takes place.

Spiritual Midwifery was still four years in the future and no one had yet heard of Ina May Gaskin, but that night in the tepee convinced my mother to become a midwife.

When she finally ducked out of the tepee and headed home across the fields, Hershe was still moaning long streams of white breath. Most of the others had left as well, but Peg stayed, frozen against the canvas for another few hours. Loraine rocked Rahula and sang rhythmically. The tepee’s air grew close with the smells of amniotic fluid, and then vomit as Hershe began throwing up the candy she’d eaten earlier. Finally Hershe stood up and gave a huge bellow. The medic-midwife reached out to catch the baby as it emerged, fat and slick. In the frigid air, the tiny, warm, wet body steamed.

G

Excerpt is used with permission from We Are As Gods: Back to the Land in the 1970s on the Quest for a New America (PublicAffairs, 2016). Copyright © 2016 by Kate Daloz.

Kate Daloz received her MFA from Columbia University, where she also taught undergraduate writing. She grew up in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, in the geodesic dome her parents built, and now lives in Brooklyn with her husband and children. We Are As Gods: Back to the Land in the 1970’s on the Quest for a New America is forthcoming this month from PublicAffairs.

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